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What is Culture?

Last updated on February 24, 2020

This word is so ephemeral that you won’t be able to find one single definition that will bring clarity.

I believe culture to be ‘a form of collective identity’.

How each of us rejoices in the fact that we have an intrinsic identity that consists of our personality, our values, our thoughts, similarly Culture is the collective identity of a certain group of people. These groups of people can be geographically located together or have the same beliefs about the world or even act in a similar fashion in situations. For example, tribes who have lived together for generations form their own set of rules and values about living with each other with a distinct way of dressing, painting, dancing, singing, talking, etc. this forms their culture. Similarly, a company may have its own culture. Apple’s culture is being secretive, focused on design and experience, and intuitive. Whereas Google’s culture is being open, experimentative, relying on data. Both are companies in the same industry but have radically different points of view at the same problem they might be solving. 

An individual doesn’t belong to a single culture, especially in this modern age of globalization. We as individuals are able to move through different cultures at different points of time, resonating with values that we identify within each culture. 

Most common understanding can be seen in the Indian Millennials today. Their Indian culture prohibits them from dating, talking to girls or talking about sex. But as more and more people get influenced by the western way of living, they resonate with being open about all these things and accept it. But at the same time, these millennials are holding strong on their family ties and closeness with family, as they cherish that part of their culture.

We are surrounded by so many different cultures around us. Each group of people have their own culture, own set of secret language, own set of belief systems. You can see this in even small groups of people in a college canteen. Each group of individuals is different. They will be having different conversations, and even conversations around the same topic will have a different way of looking at them. The way they use their language will depict the rules set out by those group of people, a very polite group of people won’t accept someone who is rash and foulmouthed, and at the same time, a polite person won’t be able to be a part of a rash, overenergetic group of people. 

Now that we agree on thinking of culture as a Collective Identity. Let’s define this identity or rather the building blocks of this Identity.

Let’s try to understand this by understanding our own Identity. If I ask myself this question of identity, I will be at a loss of words, because its an abstract notion for me and is ingrained deep in my subconscious. But a friend might be able to show me the mirror to me about my identity. Like Physically how I look, how I approach people thereby show my personality in the form of words, thoughts or ideas, what values do I put forward about my work or life etc.

All of this constitutes my identity.

Similarly, for culture, these are the building blocks of this identity –

Values – What you/group believes in, How to approach solutions, what priorities we set as a group.

Language – What kind of language do we use amongst us, how do we share our ideas in the form of words.

Art – Paintings, Music, Dances, any form of expression, creating a common form of language or rules around them to depict the uniqueness. Like classical was formed from an elitist culture of people who performed in the palaces of kings, and folk was formed from the grassroots with people of the village creating a not so formal and polished culture.

Practices/Rituals – Every culture follows certain common practices/rituals that all members of that culture follow and accept. This allows them to form a community and a sense of togetherness with each other and thereby the overall group. For religions it may be festivals – diwali, holi, etc, for Companies it may be hackathons, retreats, offsites, daily rituals and so on.

Experiences/History – This the history of the group or the experiences that a particular group has gone through to come to a place where they are now. History and nostalgia has a very deepening effect on people as even individually we are the result of the experiences we’ve had. So anything that reminds us of our past, even if we have never experienced it, seen it or believed it, can have a strong effect to bond us to that culture.

These Five things, when repeated, reinforced and reaffirmed allow people to connect and believe its truth. And eventually, create the collective identity among people that we call culture.

Published in Musings


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