I am a master's-level social worker with experience ranging from therapeutic services with children and families to medical care.
What Is Culture?
Regardless of where you live on this great, big Earth, chances are you will eventually interact in some way with a culture that is different from your own. When most people think about culture, their first thoughts involve race or ethnicity. Culture goes far beyond that, however. In fact, we are all members of various cultural groups and our cultural identities develop based on the influence of these memberships. Like most things that make you who you are, the development of your cultural identity is an ongoing process. As we are exposed to different sets of beliefs and values, we may adopt other cultural beliefs that were not part of our original makeup. In this way, culture is dynamic and complex.
In addition to race and ethnicity, our cultural orientations are influenced by gender, class, physical and mental abilities, sexual orientation, religious and spiritual beliefs, age, and much more. The individual is a complex mix of many cultural influences woven together. It is, therefore, impossible to define a person by a single cultural label. To further complicate matters, our cultural histories are filtered by individual psychological characteristics and experiences, ensuring that even those sharing cultural similarities are truly unique.
The 10 Cultural Universals
There are certain things that are a part of every culture. These things are called cultural universals. Though the elements within each will differ, every culture includes:
- Geography: Location, land, flora, fauna, and other natural resources.
- Family and Kin: Roles of males, females, children, elders, etc. These include the division of labor, child training, and rites of passage.
- Political Organizations: Laws and rules, government, law enforcement, warfare, and peace.
- Language: Includes spoken, written, sign language, body language, and number systems.
- Food, Clothing, Transportation, and Shelter: Includes everyday wear and ceremonial wear. Includes types of housing and building materials.
- Technology: Includes inventions, tools and weapons.
- Beliefs, Values, and Rituals: Religious beliefs and practices; birth and death rituals; myths and legends. Also includes attitudes toward the "unknown" and scientific understandings.
- Economics: Includes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, jobs, trade, and money.
- Creative Expression: Includes dance, music, literature, games, and leisure activities.
- Education: Can be formal and/or informal. Includes knowledge needed for survival, training, and the passing on of group values.
Elements of Culture
Culture is a system of shared beliefs that are used by a society in order to interact with the world, as well as with each other. Often, we think of the food, music, clothing, and holidays that are shared by a group as their culture, but these are only some of the elements. Other elements include customs, values, behaviors, and artifacts. Culture is, therefore, a combination of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs shared by those of the same racial, ethnic, religious, or other social group. Many of these groups we are born into (such as racial and ethnic groups) and others we choose (such as religious or political groups). Many of us move between groups, adjusting our ideas and beliefs as we grow and learn.Those who go through cultural shifts may adopt new customs, but they will also retain elements of their previous cultural experiences.
How to Be Culturally Responsive
The ability to learn from and relate respectfully to people of your own culture as well as others' is known as "cultural responsivity." Being culturally responsive requires openness to the viewpoints, thoughts, and experiences of others. This is not about changing others to be more like you. Instead, it is about exploring and honoring the differences of others. Developing a cultural- responsive attitude is a life-long journey. It includes:
- Develop cultural self-awareness. What influenced your own cultural identity? What values and beliefs do you hold and why? Understanding your own cultural makeup is the first step to understanding that others hold different values and beliefs and believe in them as much as you believe in yours.
- Learn to appreciate and value diverse views. Do not judge views that differ from yours as wrong. Instead, just accept that they are different and even try to understand other points of view.
- Avoid imposing your own values. Once you are aware of cultural differences, you may find that the cultural norms of some groups make you uncomfortable. Again, it is important to resist the urge to judge. Instead, make a conscious effort to understand the other perspective.
- Resist stereotyping. Avoid all stereotypes whether "negative" or "positive." Statements such as "blondes are dumb" or "Asians are good at math" will never be true of all individuals within that population. Furthermore, there will always be individuals outside of that population who will also fit that statement. Stereotypes are therefore unreliable and untrue.
- Learn what you can. Reading about or talking to members of another culture or visiting a friend's cultural celebration is a great way to increase your knowledge and overall acceptance.
- Accept your own naïveté. Cultural responsiveness may require you to forgive your own mistakes and ignorance. Don't dwell on them. Instead, learn from them.
Breaking culturally-accepted norms makes people uncomfortable.
Examples of Differences in Cultural Norms
|Elements of Culture||Mainstream American Culture||Other Cultures|
Sense of self and space
Formal: hugs, bows, handshakes
Communication and language
Explicit, direct communication w/ an emphasis on content
Implicit, indirect communication w/ emphasis on context.
Dress and appearance
Wide range of accepted dress. A "dress for success" ideal.
Religious rules of dress. Dress often seen as a sign of wealth, prestige, or position.
Food and eating habits
Fast food. Eating as necessity.
Religious rules for food and eating. Dining is often a social experience.
Time and time consciousness
Linear. Time consciousness is exact. Value on promptness w/ a "time equals money" ideal.
Elastic. Time consciousness is relative. More time spent on enjoyment of relationships.
Focus on immediate family. High responsibility for self and value on youth. Age seen as a handicap.
Focus on extended family. Responsibility is to family. Age is a sign of status and respect.
Values and norms
Individual orientation, independence, and preference for direct confrontation during conflicts.
Group orientation, conformity, and preference for harmony.
Beliefs and attitudes
Egalitarian, destiny controlled by the individual, gender equality, challenging of authority.
Hierarchical, respect for authority, different roles for men and women, individuals accept their destinies.
Mental processes and learning styles
Linear, sequential, and logical. Focus on problem solving.
Lateral, holistic, and accepting of the difficulties of life.
Emphasis on tasks, work has intrinsic value, and reward is based on achievement.
Emphasis on relationships. Work is a necessity of life and rewards are based on seniority.
If you are looking to do some introspection about your own ability to practice cultural respect and responsivity, consider asking yourself the following questions:
- How do you feel when someone doesn't make eye contact with you?
- How do you feel when someone sustains eye contact for a long period of time?
- Do you make assumptions about that person? If so, what are they?
What Is Tolerance?
Tolerance is another very important concept when learning to respect and accept other cultures. But what is tolerance and why is it so important? Generally speaking, tolerance is the recognition of the universal human rights and freedoms of others, and it is not a passive concept. Tolerance does not equate to indifference or indulgence. Instead, it is a freely given acceptance of the differences of others, and it is the recognition of the value of those differences without judgement. In other words, it is a respect of diversity, and many believe that it is is also the very virtue that makes peace possible.
Tips for Fostering Tolerance
- Live by the "golden rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- View differences as positive. Learning about diversity and cultural differences can be fun. Rather than being fearful and critical of people who are different, learn about their differences
- Don't blame all people in a particular ethnic group, religion, etc. for the cruel actions of a few who happen to be from the same group.
- Lastly, remember we all share the same world. Regardless of our differences, this world belongs to us all. To be tolerant is to welcome those differences and even to delight in them.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Poop on June 27, 2020:
This is really helpful! My daughter can do her homework easier.
Kathy on March 18, 2020:
Thank you! Great information I plan to share with my students (not copy, though!)
Julianna on December 04, 2019:
Wow! This is good
Pam on July 08, 2019:
Very helpful. I help teach a Boundaries class. This information on cultural differences was great.
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Janellegems on July 05, 2016:
Excellent Hub on how to respect other cultures. Marvelously presented. I love the chart/table.