What is culture and does it matter?

Have you ever wondered why people who move to other countries still eat the same foods as in their home countries,  and celebrate their national holidays? Or why Egyptians build their homes differently from the Germans? Or why Tokyo is super clean but London isn’t?

It is because of culture. Culture is the way do things, the way we solve problems, the way we relate to other people and the way we relate to nature and the world around us. Culture is the way we dress, what we eat, the beliefs we hold. Culture is the language we speak, the movies we watch and the books we read.

In the broadest sense of the word, culture is everything that surrounds us (material culture), and the invisible internal drivers of human behaviour (immaterial culture) such as beliefs or opinions.

As early as 1871, Tylor defined culture as  “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as  society.” (cited in White, 1959).

In the English language alone, there are over 160 definitions of the concept. For example, the Cambridge online dictionary defines culture in the following way: “the way of lifeespecially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time; […] the attitudesbehaviouropinions, etc. of a particular group of people within society.”

Other descriptions include: “culture consist of n social signals correlated with m different responses” (White, 1959).

But one of my favourite descriptions of culture is one given by a famous culture researcher, Geert Hofstede: Culture is “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” (Hofstede, 1991)

The differences between cultures are like difference between two (or more) computer operating systems. Have you ever tried to transition from PC to Macintosh? On the surface, the two operating systems are virtually the same, and yet people struggle to switch from one to the other. It is very similar with culture – we find it easier to operate in a system (language, clothing, food, values, religious beliefs) already familiar to us.

How do you know how different any two or more cultures are? There are many indices that classify cultures on selected characteristics. Foe example, the very well-known Hosftede’s framework of cultural dimensions allows to compare cultures on those specific cultural dimensions. There is GLOBE, and a more recent ‘Three cultures World’ approach that groups cultures into similar and dissimilar cultures. Another approach is the Country Similarity Index that “attempts to quantify how similar countries are to each other relative to other countries. The index is a statistically-based way to measure this. It weighs equally five major aspects of countries: their demographics, culture, politics, infrastructure, and geography”.

Ok, yes, we all have culture, but does is matter?

As human beings, in the biological sense, we are all the same, we share the same human characteristics.  But at a cultural level, we do differ in the way we live our lives and solve the universal problems. Culture is so strongly embedded in who we are, it is like breathing, we only realise we have our own culture when we are faced with another way of life (for example, when we move abroad and experience culture shock). There is plenty of evidence to show that culture does matter, and that it influences our behaviour (for example: https://openresearch.lsbu.ac.uk/item/9145w ) . For example, if religion is part of our culture, it influences the type of religious holidays we celebrate.

Have you ever been to Japan? Have you noticed how clean it is, for example in Tokyo? Have you ever visited London in the UK? It looks nothing like Tokyo, and is not very clean either. What makes Tokyo so clean and London so dirty? Yes, I would say it is ‘culture’. Because culture is the way we treat our external environment, and how we interact with other people.

Can we change culture?

Yes, and no. Culture is passed down over generations through six channels: families, schools, the media, religious institutions, leadership, and the law. Culture is also shaped by climate and natural environment because it affects how we live (for example, how we build houses to protect ourselves from the cold). History also influences culture. Cultural change is possible and there are a range of approaches that can be used to change culture. However, it is a very slow and difficult process.This is why immigrants who move to other cultures find it so difficult to shed their own cultures, especially when host and home cultures are very different (low cultural fit).

Gender role expectations and gender norms are part of culture
Gender norms and gender expectations are part of culture


Cambridge Online Dictionary: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/culture  

Czarnecka, B., Baxter, K., Basil, D., Guzman, F., & O’Neail, C. (2022). The effectiveness of gendered wording in health promotion leaflet – exploratory experiment in four English-speaking countries: the UK, USA, Ireland and Canada.  Available from here: https://openresearch.lsbu.ac.uk/item/9145w

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill.

White, L. A. (1959). The concept of culture. American anthropologist, 61(2), 227-251.