What is Culture?

Published 27 Apr 2017

People hear the word “culture” quite often in our daily life. Like in my case, I have often been asked what the culture of my country of origin is. Also, culture is confused with other words like “customs”, “beliefs” or “tradition”. But I think culture is quite a big word that needs to be defined because it means more than just what people’s beliefs or traditions are.

This is why my own definition of culture is that it is a set of values that each person has and these set of values are dependent to the family, community and ethnic origins of the person. Culture could encompass customs, beliefs and traditions because it is the basis of the values formation of a person. For example, a woman from China will definitely have imbibed the culture that is familiar in China, where they believe in traditional Oriental medicine such as acupuncture.

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As someone who came from South Asia, my culture is a crucial basis of my character as a person. Even though that I have now come to a different country, I am always reminded about my values because my family still practices some traditions that they believe are important. Showing respect and honor to my roots is the only way I could connect myself to my family. Although I do not understand the purpose of some of our traditions, I just rationalize that these things are helpful so that I could fully develop my personhood. I am proud of my heritage and the culture that I have developed within myself is my foundation to become a complete and self-actualized individual.

I think people acquire culture because it consists of learned patterns of behavior rather than the biologically determined ones that are sometimes called instinctive. Culture is a complex whole that social scientists can break down into simple units called ‘cultural traits.’ A trait may be a custom, such as burial of the dead; a device, such as a plow; a gesture, such as a handshake; or and idea, such as democracy.

Cultures are diverse around the world. For example, eating is a biological need. But what people eat, when and how they eat, and how food is prepared differ from culture to culture. That is why people should realize and accept the culture of others. We should be sensitive about these things because we might just offend people about our comments or how we react. For example, people from India regard cows as sacred animals. What do you think a person from India would feel if you served him hamburgers made out of beef? Essentially, we need to be aware about each other’s culture to encourage good relationship with one another. We should respect each one’s culture and should rationalize it because that is how things are. People are always different and we should respect our differences, rather than criticizing it.

Thus, culture is both a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times, being constantly enacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by our own behavior, and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behavior. When one brings culture to any organization and even down to groups within the organization, one can see clearly how culture is created, embedded, evolved, and ultimately manipulated, and, at the same time, how culture constrains, stabilizes, and provides structure and meaning to the group members.

The concept of culture helps people to “normalize” on what they see is different from the usual. If we understand the dynamics of culture, we will be less likely to be puzzled, irritated, and anxious when we encounter the unfamiliar and seemingly irrational behavior of people around us. With this knowledge, we will have a deeper understanding not only of why various groups of people can be so different, but also why it is so hard to change them. Even more important, if we understand culture better we will better understand ourselves—better understand the forces acting within us that define who we are, that reflect the groups with which we identify and to which we want to belong.


  • O’Reilly,C. A., &Chatman,J. A. (1996). Culture as Social Control: Corporations, Cults, and Commitment. In B. M. Staw &L. L. Cummings (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior (Vol. 18). Greenwich, CT : JAI Press
  • Millicent Rogers Museum Website. (2006). What is Culture?
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