1 What is Culture?

Learning Objectives

After completing this chapter, you will be able to

  • define culture 
  • explain the “cultural iceberg” and describe visible and invisible aspects of culture
  • identify the founding researchers of cross-cultural analysis

Defining Culture

Information in this section has been adapted from Chapter 1.3: Cultural Characteristics and the Roots of Culture in Intercultural Communication for the Community College by Karen Krumrey-Fulks (Lane Community College),[1] which is made available by LibreTexts under a CC BY-NC-SA license except where otherwise noted.

What does the term “culture” mean to you? Is it the apex of knowledge and intellectual achievement? A particular nation, people or social group? Rituals, symbols and myths? The arbiter of what is right and wrong behavior?

Cultural communication researcher Donal Carbaugh (1988) defined culture as “a system of symbols, premises, rules, forms, and the domains and dimensions of mutual meanings associated with these.”

Carbaugh was expanding on the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who believed that culture was a system based on symbols. Geertz said that people use symbols to define their world and express their emotions. As human beings, we all learn about the world around us, both consciously and unconsciously, starting at a very young age. What we internalize comes through observation, experience, interaction, and what we are taught. We manipulate symbols to create meaning and stories that dictate our behaviors, to organize our lives, and to interact with others. The meanings we attach to symbols are arbitrary. Looking someone in the eye means that you are direct and respectful in some countries, yet, in other cultural systems, looking away is a sign of respect.

Carbaugh also suggested that culture is “a learned set of shared interpretations and beliefs, values, and norms, which affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people.” In other words, culture is a learned pattern of values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a large group of people. It is within this framework that we will explore what happens when people from different cultural backgrounds interact.

Culture is Learned

Although there is a debate as to whether babies are born into the world as tabula rasa (blank slate) or without knowing anything, we can say that they do not come with pre-programmed preferences like a personal computer or cell phone does. And, although human beings do share some universal habits such as eating and sleeping, these habits are biologically and physiologically based, not culturally based. Culture is the unique way that we have learned to eat and sleep. Other members of our culture have taught us slowly and consciously (or even subconsciously) how, when, and where to eat and sleep.

Values and Culture

Value systems are fundamental to understanding how culture expresses itself. Values are deeply felt and often serve as principles that guide people in their perceptions and behaviors. Using our values, certain ideas are judged to be right or wrong, good or bad, important or not important, desirable or not desirable. Common values include fairness, respect, integrity, compassion, happiness, kindness, creativity, curiosity, religion, wisdom, and more.

Ideally, our values should match up with what we say we will do, but sometimes our various values come into conflict, and a choice has to be made as to which one will be given preference over another. An example of this could be love of country and love of family. You might love both, but you might ultimately choose family over country when a crisis occurs.

Beliefs and Culture

Our values are supported by our assumptions of our world. Assumptions are ideas that we believe and hold to be true. Beliefs come about through repetition. This repetition becomes a habit we form and leads to habitual patterns of thinking and doing. We do not realize our assumptions because they are ingrained in us at an unconscious level. We become aware of our assumptions when we encounter a value or belief that is different from our own, and it makes us feel that we need to stand up for, or validate, our beliefs.

People from the United States strongly believe in independence. They consider themselves as separate individuals in control of their own lives. The Declaration of Independence, the nation’s founding document, states that all people—not groups, but individual people—are created equal. This sense of equality leads to the idea that all people are of the same standing or importance, and therefore, informality or lack of rigid social protocol is common in America. This leads to an informality of speech, dress, and manners that other cultures might find difficult to negotiate because of their own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors.

Beliefs are part of every human life in all world cultures. They define for us, and give meaning to, objects, people, places, and things in our lives. Our assumptions about our world determine how we react emotionally and what actions we need to take. These assumptions about our worldviews guide our behaviors and shape our attitudes. Mary Clark (2005) defined worldviews as “beliefs and assumptions by which an individual makes sense of experiences that are hidden deep within the language and traditions of the surrounding society.” Worldviews are the shared values and beliefs that form the customs, behaviors and foundations of any particular society. Worldviews “set the ground rules for shared cultural meaning” (Clark, 2005). Worldviews are the patterns developed through interactions within families, neighborhoods, schools, communities, churches, and so on. Worldviews can be resources for understanding and analyzing the fundamental differences between cultures.

Feelings and Culture

Our culture can give us a sense of familiarity and comfort in a variety of contexts, and we look to our culture to guide us when we encounter situations that we don’t know how to navigate. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all others and is the standard by which all other cultures should be measured (Sumner, 1906). An example of ethnocentrism could be considering that eating dog meat is “wrong” but eating cow meat is “normal” – or vice versa. In some cultures, it is culturally acceptable to eat dog meat but not cow meat, and in other cultures, like in Canada and the United States, eating cow meat is common but eating dog meat is culturally unacceptable. Ethnocentrism will be discussed more in the Key Terms chapter.

Geertz (1973) believed the meanings we attach to our cultural symbols can create chaos when we meet someone who believes in a different meaning or interpretation; it can give us culture shock. If, for example, a dog-loving Canadian goes to a foreign country and encounters a dog meat market, that Canadian could experience feelings of disorientation, confusion, and anxiety.  Symptoms of culture shock can be both psychological and physiological, and although experiencing culture shock is very common, a failure to reconcile these feelings can be a barrier to successful integration in a new culture. Culture shock will be discussed more in the Culture Shock chapter.

Behavior and Culture

Our worldview influences our behaviors. Behaviors endure over time and are passed from person to person. Within a dominant or national culture, members can belong to many different groups. Dominant cultures may be made up of many subsets or co-cultures that exist within them. For example, your dominant or national culture may be East Indian, but you are also a young, highly educated international student who grew up in New Delhi and now lives in Canada; as a result, you exist in the world very differently than an older person who has never left her rural village in Palampur. A co-culture (or micro culture) is a group whose values, beliefs or behaviors set it apart from the larger culture of which it is a part of and shares many similarities (Orbe, 1996). For example, you might consider “international student” to be a kind of co-culture.

Culture is Dynamic and Heterogeneous

Cultural patterns are not rigid; rather, they are slowly and constantly changing. Canada of the 1950s is not the Canada of today. A country’s culture changes over time and is affected by many factors, including immigration and emigration, access to technology and education, and contact with other cultures. Additionally, not all people within a certain country share identical cultural values and beliefs. Every individual experiences the world in a unique way and so will have a unique way of viewing the world. Consider the values and beliefs of your grandparents: are they identical to yours? While this course will discuss broad principles of culture (sometimes called “prototypes”), it is important that we remember that there is great diversity within every culture.

Visible and Invisible Culture

Information in this section is adapted from Chapter 4.4: Cross Cultural Communication in Professional Communication by JR Dingwall, Chuck Labrie, Trecia McLennon, and Laura Underwood (UC Davis)[2], which is made available by LibreTexts and eCampusOntario under a CC BY license except where otherwise noted.

The iceberg, a commonly used metaphor to describe culture, is great for illustrating the tangible and the intangible. When talking about culture, most people focus on the “tip of the iceberg,” which is visible but makes up just 10 percent of the object. The rest of the iceberg, 90 percent of it, is below the waterline. Many business leaders, when addressing intercultural situations, pick up on the things they can see—things on the “tip of the iceberg.” Things like food, clothing, and language difference are easily and immediately obvious, but focusing only on these can mean missing or overlooking deeper cultural aspects such as thought patterns, values, and beliefs that are under the surface. Solutions to any interpersonal miscommunication that results become temporary bandages covering deeply rooted conflicts.


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

As you can see, the visible part of culture, which is the “tip” of the iceberg is relatively small compared to the ideas, values and beliefs that are “under the surface.” It is these hidden aspects of culture that can cause the greatest confusion in cross-cultural communication.

Another image that we can use to help us understand culture is the onion.

An onion with three parts labelled: the inner core is "values", the middle layer is "behaviours" and the outer layer is "products"

In the onion analogy, we can peel off the layers to reveal the hidden beliefs and ideas (values) at the core of everything we do (behaviours) and everything we buy (products). This analogy emphasizes that cultural products, those ‘tip of the iceberg’ tangible parts of culture, are the result of behaviours which are the result of values.


Further your understanding of the iceberg analogy by watching this video by Advance Consulting for Education: https://youtu.be/78E23tJ9B7A?si=5tPDSILrL5DgDXCJ

What is the tourist definition of culture? What aspects of your culture would be visible to a tourist visiting your country? What types of things would a tourist see, do, and buy?

What aspects of culture are “below the surface”? What attitudes and behaviours might be hard for a newcomer to understand?


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


Additional Resources

As cited by Krumrey-Fulks:

Berger, C. R., & Calabrese, R. J. (1975). Some Explorations In Initial Interaction And Beyond: Toward A Developmental Theory Of Interpersonal Communication. Human Communication Research1(2), 99–112. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2958.1975.tb00258.x

Clark, M. E. (2005). In search of human nature. London: Routledge.

Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of cultures. London: Hutchinson.

Hall, E. (1976). Beyond culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Hampden-Turner, C., & Trompenaars, F. (1997). Response to Geert Hofstede. International Journal of Intercultural Relations21(1), 149–159. doi: 10.1016/s0147-1767(96)00042-9

Hills, M. D. (2002). Kluckhohn and Strodtbecks Values Orientation Theory. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture4(4). doi: 10.9707/2307-0919.1040

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture and Organizations. International Studies of Management & Organization10(4), 15–41. doi: 10.1080/00208825.1980.11656300

Kluckhohn, F. R., & Strodtbeck, dF. L. (1961). Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston, IL: Row Peterson.

Orr, L. M., & Hauser, W. J. (2008). A Re-Inquiry of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: A Call for 21st Century Cross-Cultural Research. Marketing Management Journal18(2), 1–19.

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: Sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores and morals. 1959 reprint. Boston, MA: Ginn and Company.

As cited by Dingwall et al.:

Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license

Content created by Anonymous for Understanding Culture; in Cultural Intelligence for Leaders, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/cultural-intelligence-for-leaders/s04-understanding-culture.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license

Derivative work of content created by Anonymous for Intercultural and International Group Communication; in An Introduction to Group Communication, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/an-introduction-to-group-communication/s07-intercultural-and-internationa.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license

Content created by Anonymous for Language, Society, and Culture; in A Primer on Communication Studies, previously shared at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/a-primer-on-communication-studies/s03-04-language-society-and-culture.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license




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