Components of Culture

In the opensource textbook Leading with Cultural Intelligence (2012) published by Saylor Foundation, the author defines culture this way:

Culture consists of the shared beliefs, values, and assumptions of a group of people who learn from one another and teach to others that their behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives are the correct ways to think, act, and feel. It is helpful if you can think about culture in the following five ways:

  • Culture is learned.
  • Culture is shared.
  • Culture is dynamic.
  • Culture is systemic.
  • Culture is symbolic.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into these components.

Culture is learned: From the time we are children, we learn about our culture through our interactions with others in our community, especially our caregivers. As we grow, we learn through observing others, listening, and asking questions.

Culture is shared: We all engage in multiple different cultures. Culture is connected to our ancestry. Culture is also shared in the communities we live in. The places we work. Anytime people gather and share experiences, culture is formed. The way we collectively interpret the meaning of experiences, adds to the cultural tapestry. Each different group will all have its own culture. Spending time with people who understand all aspects of our lives can feel comforting.

Culture is dynamic: Culture doesn’t stay the same. It’s fluid. It moves and changes as time moves forward. Since culture is shared, we all influence the forming of culture in small (and sometimes big) ways, and over time it shifts. Consider how the introduction of various technologies has impacted our own culture. Perhaps you remember a time before smartphones, social media, and texting. How do you think the introduction of smartphones has impacted culture?

Culture is systemic: We will cover a bit more about systems in future modules. Some examples of systems within a society are healthcare, law, governance, capitalism, education, social services and our economy. This is just a sampling, there’s many more systems that impact society. When speaking specifically about culture, we must try to understand that these systems contribute many different layers to our lives, and therefore our culture. Some of these layers can be helpful while others are quite harmful. The history of each of these systems – and how they have helped, hurt, or harmed people – influences culture and therefore the behaviours of people who live within the society.

Culture is symbolic: Symbols are most often something material that stands in for something else. Symbols can be important to certain cultures and can also communicate a message.

Consider the symbol of the eagle or an eagle feather. What would one of these symbols mean to you if you saw it? While it may mean nothing to one person or people group, in Indigenous culture the eagle is sacred. It is considered the messenger of the Creator. The eagle is also the national symbol of several countries, including the United States. Depending on your culture, you would interpret the symbol differently.

Consider religious symbols like a Star of David, or a cross. What would one of those symbols communicate to you if you saw the symbol on a building?

What if you saw a rainbow sticker outside a store, what would that mean to you?

Or what if someone you passed on the street gave you a Vulcan salute (Star Trek: means live long and prosper)? Would that mean anything to you, or would you scratch your head in confusion? What about a thumbs up sign? Do you think these symbols have the same meaning in different parts of the world, or could they mean different things depending on the culture?

Depending on your connection to a culture, you may interpret a symbol differently than someone else would interpret them who is from a different culture.

Some elements of culture are:

  • Values and beliefs
  • Social norms
  • Symbols and language
  • Stories
  • Artifacts
  • Heroes

Culture can show up in many ways including art/drama/music, customs, faith/religions, food, attitudes, and rituals.

Cultures can change and shift over time. However, since so many people influence culture, any changes can move quite slowly.

“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Culture is the soul connection of a society. It bonds people together and creates a sense of belonging with people who “get” us (at least certain parts of us). Without some sense of connection to culture, we risk becoming disconnected and displaced.

Participating in a culture can be a source of wonder and delight. Culture can come with a wellspring of creativity. We can find identity in alignment within our cultures. Through our cultural expression we tell stories and pass wisdom to the younger generations, we celebrate the goodness of life, we create artistic expression, and we remember the past and nurture hope for the future.

“Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of.” ~ Ellen Goodman


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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