When we think about culture we tend to think about the foods different people eat, how they eat that food as well as the clothes they wear. (For a fun quiz on food habits around the world see here). While that has a place, it is only the start.
Talking about culture is a bit like asking a fish, 'What is water?' Because the water is such a fundamental part of its existence, the fish hardly notices it is there - unless the water is taken away or changes for some reason.
Another way to put it is, culture is the lens through which we look at the world. They are the spectacles through which we interpret the world around us. Cultural patterns of behaviour and belief frequently impact our:
- Perceptions (what we see)
- Cognitions (what we think)
- Actions (what we do).
In other words culture is really important! It has a powerful impact on so much of our lives. We can hold onto our cultural beliefs with great tenacity and conviction, even in spite of evidence to the contrary showing it to be harmful. That is why challenging someone's culture can evoke the same response as criticising someone's mother. You may have mixed feelings about your mother; there may be some habits or idiosyncrasies about her that annoy you, but should anyone criticise your mother then all sorts of defences and emotions can quickly come to the surface!
One of my favourite authors, Tim Keller helpfully gives a working definition of culture as a ‘collective heart’ – ” a set of commanding commitments held and shared by a community of people…. it is the source of so many ….. deep aspirations, unspoken fears and inner conflicts….. It (shapes) their daily work, their romantic and family relationships, their attitudes toward sex, money, and power.”
So in other words, everyone has a culture, even if they choose to recognise it it or not.
Growing up in between Western and Asian culture this was a big issue for me......
(you can see the story of my spiritual journey here). I never felt I belonged in England (reinforced by my peers at school who would talk of India being ‘your country’) and then going to India I would not feel a part of those who I met there. At the time I spoke very basic Hindi and was always recognised as an outsider. It was a deeply ingrained issue for me – apparently I am told I would ask my mother to scrub me hard with soap so I would appear whiter!
Through my spiritual awakening I learnt that culture, while comforting and reassuring, is really secondary to what is most important in life. More important than culture is having a sense of belonging. Yes we do get a lot of our sense of belonging from our culture, but if we can transcend our culture and find internal anchors to hold onto then we can find greater security in what is a rapidly changing world.
Ultimately the only constant in the universe that does not change is God. The more secure I can be in my relationship with Him the more I can adapt, I think, to the changes of culture around me.
Now I find myself something of a hybrid – with the desire to enjoy the best of all cultures, and wanting to learn from what is the most helpful and edifying.
On a more mundane level I still find myself instinctively drawn to Indian vegetarian food as my favourite dishes (what I was brought up with – my mother’s cooking!) and I still love Hindi music (where my earliest memories lie), but I can also enjoy a whole variety of other tastes and talents.
On an organisational level, the late Peter Drucker has a famous quote that says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” By that I think he means no matter what the great plans and ideas we have for ourselves, our family or our company or organisation, the overall way of thinking, communicating and working that is ingrained in us will have the final say on what actually happens on the ground.
That is why it is so important to think through and get an outside perspective on how we think and behave.
How about you?
How do you view culture?
What are some of the questions about culture you would like to ask and explore?