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Definitions & Models of Culture

Definitions & Models of Culture

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand ways of describing culture based on both form and function.

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If you've ever traveled to another country, you've probably run into some cultural barriers. It could be language, different foods that they eat, different customs, different ways of seeing the world.

This could all be very interesting, but it can also lead to miscommunication. And, in some cases, conflict. I'm Marlene. And in this tutorial, I'd like to talk with you about culture.

So culture. As human beings, we depend on culture to know how to behave. We organize ourselves into social groups based on common language. Both verbal and nonverbal. Traditions. And ways of seeing the world.

And actually, culture becomes like an instruction manual for us. Unlike animals, we don't rely on instinct to figure out what to do. We're not born with these instincts. But we need to learn the proper ways of behaving.

And we do that from our family members, from people in our communities, people within our own culture.

So we develop cultural norms. Cultural norms are the way we perceive the world and the way we behave based on what we think is right, true, and proper. So we can see culture expressed in many ways. And I've written some of them down here for us to look at.

Food. OK, that's a popular one. You don't have to go far to see different kinds of food preferences. Even here within the United States. Because we're such a melting pot.

You can have Mexican food, Italian food, Chinese food depending on your preferences. But each culture has had a food preference. Some like spicy foods. Some a little bit more bland.

You can also see how culture is expressed through art and music. You've got Latin music, Asian music, European classical music, the Indian sitar. All very different expressions, but they say something about the culture.

And the same is true with art. I think it's really interesting to go to an art museum and walk through the different rooms where you see African art, Asian art, European art. And how different the art is. How different the expressions are of the culture.

So we see expressions of culture around us all the time. I think an interesting way, an interesting expression, in particular, is proverbs. All cultures have a proverb. Or many proverbs, actually.

And they actually do reflect something about the culture. Here are a couple of examples. This is a Native American proverb from the Aropohoe.

Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it. Which reflects a worldview here. Or cultural view that the land is sacred.

Many Japanese proverbs are about morals. An example would be, an evil deed remains with the evil doer. Here in the United States, you may have heard these proverbs.

The early bird gets the worm. A stitch in time saves nine. Really reflects our industrious work ethic here. Got to get up and get going if you're going to be successful. So these proverbs express something about the culture.

Now we can look at all of these elements here we can see that there are cultural differences. And some of them might seem a little trivial, like food preference. Or they could be more fundamental.

Let's just take a look here at language or dress. We'll start with language. Some cultures are going to be more demonstrative in the way they speak verbally. Perhaps in tone of voice. How loud they speak, how soft.

Or even with the non-verbals. Eye contact. In this culture here in the US, it's considered a sign of respect and being present to make direct eye contact with people. In some cultures, it's a sign of disrespect to make direct eye contact.

So you can see how there could be some cultural misunderstandings that could lead to miscommunication. Some cases it might be trivial and some cases it may not be. Just based on those differences in verbal and nonverbal ways of communicating.

Or with dress. We're pretty casual here in the US. We go to some other countries where if we dress in a more casual way that may be appropriate here, it could be considered very inappropriate and disrespectful in certain contexts.

So there are differences. And some of them are pretty fundamental. Let's take a look over here at the way different cultures may view family, for example.

Child rearing practices, differences in age, gender. There are cultures that really venerate their ancestors. And consider the elderly to be the wise keepers of what the culture needs. And will consult the elderly, the older people in the culture.

Whereas, we can see in the US, we've become a more youth dominated culture. You can see this in our popular culture. The ads in newspapers, the emphasis on looking younger. So youth is venerated here. Whereas, in some cultures, it is the ancestors or those who are older.

There are also traditions. And that would extend to caring for family. For example, in some cultures, you would always care for the elderly at home. The idea of putting an older relative perhaps in a nursing home or some other kind of institution would be considered wrong culturally. It would not be considered right.

So the way we are with our family members, the way we perceive family role, even status. There are differences with gender. Particularly in male, female roles. Some of the roles are more rigid in particular cultures than they are in other cultures.

So understanding these particular kinds of traditions within a culture. And actually I looked at traditions here and I'm thinking, in terms of ancestors in Mexico, particularly, and in many places in the world, they celebrate something called Day of the Dead which is actually honoring ancestors and those who've gone before.

So these are examples of how culture has fundamental differences in the way we see the world. And some differences that may be a little more trivial. Now culture does evolve over time. And I think you can see that even here in the US.

For example, dress. It wasn't that long ago where women would never wear trousers or pants. Women always wore dresses. This began to change, I think, in the 1970s.

Where women began to wear pants-suits, is what they were called back then, and now you see women wearing pants all the time. Or women's gender roles here have changed in terms of women in the workforce.

So there are changes over time. And the way we express culture can show that. Our musical expressions, rock n' roll was a change in musical expression that was the advent of a whole era. A change in the way culturally we were looking at the world and behaving was expressed through rock n' roll.

Or hip hop might be a way of expressing another cultural phenomena. So it's important to understand that we all come from cultures. And growing up within a culture and accepting the norms of that culture makes it really easy for us to believe that what we think is right, proper, and true is universally true.

And it's not universally true when you realize that other cultures may have some very fundamental differences with the way you see the world from your particular cultural viewpoint. Coming to recognize and understand that is a very important step in preventing miscommunication and conflict.

I've enjoyed this tutorial with you and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Cultural Differences

Differences between people caused by membership in different cultures; may range from trivial to fundamental.


A form of human social organization in which people identify themselves as members of a group sharing symbol systems, norms, traditions, and viewpoints towards the world.


The variety of behaviors and perceptions considered "right", "true" or "proper" by a culture.