Module 2: Expanding Your Intercultural Knowledge

Cultural Universals

What elements are common across all cultures? What are things that everybody needs or does regardless of their background? Independently of our background, there are everyday activities, values, and cultural expressions that are present across cultures. We all share commonalities, known as cultural universals; the differences emerge in how we express them. In other words, when they become culture-specific.

Cultural universals are human activities, organizational patterns, characteristics, or traits that are common to all societies around the world.

To understand the difference between a cultural universal and a culture-specific activity, consider this example discussing the family unit:

“Every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults will continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In many Western countries, by contrast, individuals are [generally] expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit consisting of parents and their offspring.”

Little, 2014, pg. 82

Learning to distinguish between a cultural universal (e.g., family structure and sexual reproduction) and socio-cultural characteristics associated with a group or subgroup (e.g., nuclear vs extended families, same sex or different sex parents) will help you gain a better idea of how behaviours, values, and knowledge are defined within a given culture and across cultures.

Activity: Identifying Cultural Universals

Look at the items in the following list and classify the elements into cultural universals (elements present in all cultures) or culture-specific attributes (behaviours specific to certain cultures):

To expand your knowledge of human activities and traits present around the world, explore the following list of cultural universals. As you read, it may be useful to think about how any of these examples may be expressed in different cultures based on your own cultural background and what you know about other cultural groups. For example, in mainstream North American cultures, wearing black is common during funeral rites, whereas in some Eastern countries, the colour associated with these rites is white.

  • age-grading
  • courtship
  • etiquette
  • food taboos
  • gift-giving
  • hospitality
  • incest taboos
  • language
  • mealtimes
  • postnatal care
  • soul concepts
  • trade
  • community organization
  • decorative art
  • faith healing
  • funeral rites
  • government
  • housing
  • inheritance rules
  • law
  • obstetrics
  • religious ritual
  • surgery
  • cooperative labour
  • division of labour
  • fire-making
  • games
  • greetings
  • humour
  • kin groups
  • magic
  • penal sanctions
  • sexual restrictions
  • technology
  • cosmology
  • ethnobotany
  • family feasting
  • gestures to communicate
  • hairstyles
  • hygiene
  • kinship nomenclature
  • marriage
  • personal names
  • shelter
  • tool making

Takeaway points

  • Cultural universals involve practices, activities, and behaviours that all societies have developed to meet their human needs or to adapt to their surroundings.
  • Remember, cultural universals refer to what we have in common as human beings, while culture-specific behaviours indicate how those elements are expressed within and across cultural groups. That is the difference between, for example, hospitality (cultural universal) and rules and expectations about being a good host (culture-specific practices).

Try These Strategies

  • Think about people you know with a cultural background different from yours and select two cultural universals, based on what you know or have observed. How do the culture-specific expressions differ? In what way are they similar? Do you know enough to explain this to someone else?
  • If you do not know enough about the other culture, take this as an opportunity to start the conversation with your friends or acquaintances and learn more about each other. If you have the opportunity to travel abroad, you can also do this to start engaging with people in the country. Focus on observing, asking, and interacting.