1 Defining Culture

Our culture has a significant impact on who we are, what we believe, how we see the world – and on how we communicate with others.

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to

  • Define “culture” (Meyer, 2017, p. 57)
  • Explain some characteristics of culture (Guffey, 2013, p. 66)
  • Understand the difference between visible (tourist) and invisible (iceberg) definitions of culture (Advance Consulting for Education, 2012)

Defining Culture

Meyer (2017) says this about culture[1]:

Culture, like language, is something that we learn. Although culture provides us with our identity and sense of self, culture is not part of our genetic code. It is something dynamic, constantly changing, that is passed from one generation to the next. What we value, how those values influence our behaviour, how we perceive the world, and even how we communicate are all determined by the culture in which we grow up and by which we continue to live into adulthood. How and what we learn can be, and frequently are, culturally determined. So, too, are our thinking and reasoning patterns and our approaches to problem-solving. Sometimes it is only when we come in contact with other cultures and are made aware of differences in our efforts to communicate that our own ever-evolving cultures come sharply into focus.

“Culture” can be defined as the shared system of values, beliefs, attitudes, norms, and practices established and used by a group.

The rules that apply in one culture may be entirely inappropriate in another. Context is therefore an important concept in intercultural interactions. Because people from different cultures encode and decode messages differently, there is always the potential for misunderstanding and, consequently, antagonisms to occur across cultural boundaries.

Characteristics of Culture

Guffey et al. (2013) outline the general characteristics of culture[2]:

Culture is shaped by attitudes learned in childhood and later internalized in adulthood. As we enter this current period of globalization and interculturalism, we should expect to make adjustments and adopt new attitudes. Adjustment and accommodation will be easier if we understand some basic characteristics of culture.

Understanding basic characteristics of culture helps us make adjustments and accommodations.

Culture Is Learned.

The rules, values, and attitudes of a culture are not inherent. They are learned and passed down from generation to generation. In other words, cultural rules of behaviour are taught. For example, in many Middle Eastern and some Asian cultures, same-sex people may walk hand in hand in the street, but opposite-sex people may not do so. In Arab cultures, conversations are often held in close proximity, sometimes nose to nose. But in Western cultures, if a person stands too close, the other may feel uncomfortable. These cultural rules of behaviour, which are learned from your family and society, and which act as a kind of blueprint for how people live, are conditioned from early childhood.

Cultures are Inherently Logical.

The rules in any culture originated to reinforce that culture’s values and beliefs. They act as normative forces. Rules about how close to stand may be linked to values about sexuality, aggression, modesty, and respect. Acknowledging the inherent logic of a culture is extremely important when learning to accept behaviour that differs from our own cultural behaviour. Culture is universal in that every human group has a culture. Cultural values and beliefs, which form the blueprint for behaviour, are closely aligned to the human needs of the group and support how the group lives.

Culture Is the Basis of Self-Identity and Community.

Culture is the basis for how we tell the world who we are and what we believe. People build their identities through cultural overlays to their primary culture. When North Americans make choices in education, career, place of employment, and life partner, they consider certain rules, manners, ceremonies, beliefs, language, and values. These considerations add to their total cultural outlook, and they represent major expressions of a person’s self-identity.

Culture determines our sense of who we are and our sense of community.

Culture is also closely related to language. Cultural beliefs, norms, and values are expressed through language and cultural patterns are manifested in language.

Culture Is Dynamic.

Over time, cultures will change. Changes are caused by advancements in technology and communication, as discussed earlier. Local differences are modified or slowly erased. Change is also caused by such events as migration, natural disasters, and conflicts. One major event in this country was the exodus of people living on farms. When families moved to cities, major changes occurred in the way family members interacted. Attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs change in open societies more quickly than in closed societies.

To understand more fully how cultures can change over time, consider Canadian culture and eating habits.  Thirty years ago, what did Canadians typically eat? Who prepared the food? Who did people eat with? Where did they eat? What were they doing while they ate?  How do the habits of 30 years ago compare with habits of today?

Culture Combines the Visible and Invisible.

To outsiders, the way we act—those things that we do in daily life and work—are the most visible parts of our culture. In India, for example, people avoid stepping on ants or other insects because they believe in reincarnation and are careful about all forms of life. Such practices are outward symbols of deeper values that are invisible but that pervade everything we think and do.

This TED Talk[3] discusses cultural misunderstandings and has some good examples of visible vs. invisible culture:

The e-text Introduction to Professional Communications by Melissa Ashman provides us with this image of the “cultural iceberg”[4]:

Cultural Iceberg
The Cultural Iceberg by L. Underwood (2015), adapted information from Lindner (2013). Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Watch this video[5] to understand the how the “tourist definition” of visible culture differs from the “iceberg definition” of culture that is below the surface:


Activities to Further your Understanding of Culture

Culture is….

  • “… the shared system of values, beliefs, attitudes, norms, and practices established and used by a group” (Caroline Meyer, business expert)
  • “…the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behaviour” (James Spradley, anthropologist)
  • “…the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., or a particular society, group, place or time” (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  • “…a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)” (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  • “…symbolic communication” (Li and Karakowsky, professors of business and administration, respectively)
  • “the way of life of a particular people, esp. as shown in their ordinary behavior and habits, their attitudes toward each other, and their moral and religious beliefs” (Cambridge Dictionary)
  1. Consider the different definitions above.
    • Which definition do you feel is most accurate?
    • Create your own definition of culture.
  2. Consider your own culture.
    • What aspects of culture would tourists or newcomers notice first? What would they buy, eat, and do?
    • What aspects of culture would take longer for a newcomer to notice?
  3. Consider a culture that you are familiar with but that is not your own.
    • What aspects of this culture did you notice right away? What did you buy, eat and do?
    • What aspects of this culture took you longer to notice?
  4. Consider the different ways we use the word ‘culture’: corporate culture, youth culture, organizational culture, national culture, counter-culture, etc..  What do these terms mean?


Additional Resources on Culture

To broaden your understanding of culture, check out these online resources:

Ashman, M. (2018, June 13). Chapter 8.1: Intercultural communication. In Introduction to professional communication. BCcampus Open Education. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/professionalcomms/chapter/8-1-intercultural-communication/. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Little, W. (2016, October 5). Chapter 3: Culture. In Introduction to sociology  – 2nd Canadian Edition. BCcampus Open Education. https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontosociology2ndedition/chapter/chapter-3-culture/. CC BY 4.0.

  1. Meyer, C. (2017). Getting the message across. In Communicating for results: A Canadian student's guide (4th ed., pp. 63-69). Oxford.
  2. Guffey, M. E., Lowey, D., Rhodes, K., & Rogin, P. (2013). Intercultural communication. In Business communication: Process & product (4th brief Canadian ed., pp. 174-202). Nelson Education.
  3. TEDx Talks. (2014, October 21). Cross cultural communication | Pellegrino Riccardi | TEDxBergen [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMyofREc5Jk.
  4. Ashman, M. (2018, June 13). 8.1 Intercultural communication. In Introduction to professional communications. BCcampus Open Education. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/professionalcomms/chapter/8-1-intercultural-communication/. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
  5. Advance Consulting for Education. (2012, January 25). Working in a culturally diverse environment: What is culture? [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78E23tJ9B7A.


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