A. Major Characteristics Of Culture
While there are many explanations of what culture is and does, there is general agreement on what constitutes its major characteristics. An examination of these characteristics will provide increased understanding of the abstract, multifaceted concept and also offer insight into how communication is influenced by culture.
1. Culture Is Learned. At birth, we have no knowledge of the many societal rules needed to function effectively in our culture, but we quickly begin to internalize this information. Through interactions, observations, and imitation, the proper ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are communicated to us.
Being taught to eat with a fork, a pair of chopsticks or even one’s fingers is learning cultural behavior. Attending a Catholic mass on Sunday or praying at a Jewish Synagogue on Saturday is learning cultural behaviors and values. Celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, or Yom Kippur is learning cultural traditions. Culture is also acquired from art, proverbs, folklore, history, religion, and a variety of other sources. This learning, often referred to as enculturation, is both conscious and subconscious, and has the objective of teaching us how to function properly within our cultural milieu.
2. Culture Is Transmitted Intergenerationally. Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He was certainly not referring to culture, which exists only if it is remembered and repeated by people.
You learned your culture from family members, teachers, peers, books, personal observations, and a host of media sources. The appropriate way to act, what to say, and things to value were all communicated to the members of your generation by these many sources. You are also a source for passing these cultural expectations, usually with little or no variation, to succeeding generations. Culture represents our link to the past and, through future generations, hope for the future. The critical factor in this equation is communication.
3. Culture Is Symbolic. Words, gestures, and images are merely symbols used to convey meaning. It is our ability to use these symbols that allows us to engage in the many forms of social intercourse used to construct and convey culture. Our symbol-making ability facilitates learning and enables transmission of meaning from one person to another, group to group, and generation to generation. In addition to transmitting meaning, the portability of symbols creates the ability to store information, which allows cultures to preserve what is considered important and to create a history. The preservation of culture provides each new generation with a road map to follow and a reference library to consult when unknown situations are encountered. Succeeding generations may modify established behaviors or values, or construct new ones, but the accumulation of past traditions is what we know as culture.
4. Culture Is Dynamic. Despite its historical nature, culture is never static. Within a culture, new ideas, inventions, and exposure to other cultures create change. Discoveries such as the stirrup, gunpowder, the nautical compass, penicillin, and nuclear power are demonstrations of culture’s susceptibility to innovation and new ideas. More recently, advances made by minority groups, the women’s movement, and gay rights advocates have significantly altered the fabric of contemporary U.S. society. Invention of the computer chip and the Internet and the discovery of DNA have brought profound changes not only to U.S. culture but also to the rest of the world.
Diffusion, or cultural borrowing, is also a source of change. Think about how common pizza (Italian), sushi (Japanese), tacos (Mexican), and tandoori chicken and naan bread (India) now are in the U.S. American diet. The Internet has accelerated cultural diffusion by making new knowledge and insights easily accessible. Immigrants bring their own cultural practices, traditions, and artifacts, some of which become incorporated into the culture of their new world. These perceptions are strongly influenced by culture. In other words, we see, hear, feel, taste, and even smell the world through the criteria that culture has placed on our perceptions. Thus, one’s idea of beauty, attitude toward the elderly, concept of self in relation to others—even one’s perception of what tastes good or bad – are culturally influenced and can vary among social groups. For example, Vegemite is a yeast extract spread used on toast and sandwiches that is sometimes referred to as the “national food” of Australia. Yet, few people other than those from Australia or New Zealand like the taste, or even the smell, of this salty, dark paste.
As you would expect, perception is an important aspect of intercultural communication, because people from dissimilar cultures frequently perceive the world differently. Thus, it is important to be aware of the more relevant socio-cultural elements that have a significant and direct influence on the meanings we assign to stimuli. These elements represent our belief, value, and attitude systems and our worldview.
B. Constructs Of Culture: Beliefs, Values, and Attitudes
5. Beliefs can be defined as individually held subjective ideas about the nature of an object or event. These subjective ideas are, in large part, a product of culture, and they directly influence our behaviors. Bullfighting is thought to be cruel and inhumane by most people in the United States, but certainly not by the many people in Spain and Mexico who love the sport. A strict adherent of Judaism or Islam would probably find the thought of eating a ham sandwich repulsive. Regarding religion, many people believe that there is only one god but others pay homage to multiple deities.
6. Valuesrepresent those things we hold important in life, such as morality, ethics, and aesthetics. We use values to distinguish between the desirable and the undesirable. Each person has a set of unique, personal values and a set of shared, cultural values. The latter are a reflection of the rules a culture has established to reduce uncertainty, lessen the likelihood of conflict, help in decision making, and provide structure to social organization and interactions.
Cultural values are a motivating force behind our behaviors. Someone from a culture that places a high value on harmonious social relations, such as Japan, will likely employ an indirect communication style. In contrast, a U.S. American can be expected to use a more direct style, because frankness, honesty, and openness are valued.
7. Attitudes. Our beliefs and values push us to hold certain attitudes, which are learned tendencies to act or respond in a specific way to events, objects, people, or orientations. Culturally instilled beliefs and values exert a strong influence on our attitudes. Thus, people tend to embrace what is liked and avoid what is disliked. Someone from a culture that considers cows sacred will take a negative attitude toward your invitation to have a Big Mac for lunch.
8. Worldview. Although quite abstract, the concept of worldview is among the most important elements of the perceptual attributes influencing intercultural communication. Stated simply, worldview is what forms people’s orientation toward such philosophical concepts as deities, the universe, nature, and the like.
Normally, worldview is deeply imbedded in one’s psyche and operates on a subconscious level. This can be problematic in an intercultural situation, where conflicting worldviews can come into play. As an example, many Asian and Native North American cultures hold a worldview that people should have a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with nature. In contrast, Euro-Americans are instilled with the concept that people must conquer and mold nature to conform to personal needs and desires. Individuals from nations possessing these two contrasting worldviews could well encounter difficulties when working to develop an international environmental protection plan. The concept of democracy, with everyone having an equal voice in government, is an integral part of the U.S. worldview. Contrast this with Afghanistan and parts of Africa, where worldviews hold that one’s tribe takes precedence over the central government.