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What is Culture?

Holly Cromwell

Friday, 17 February 2023

A look at what culture actually means. Thinking a little more deeply about everything we include in the word, what we use it for and ultimately why it matters.

Culture is an almost undefinable wreck; an amorphous frustration that nonetheless has a tangible effect on the world around you. I know that might seem rich coming from a girl who insists you can tell when the rolling hills of northern England become the Scottish Lowlands but, I promise, you can really feel the effects. We even have a word for that: culture shock. Finding yourself in an alien culture has a profound impact on a person, even if you’re expecting it and studied up.

Most newspapers have a section for culture. If we trust them then all there is to culture are art galleries, exhibitions, books, theatre and film. As much as I love the arts, we know there’s more to it than that and it wasn’t Molière that left me feeling out of step. Then we have the university itself. I study history, politics and aspects of sociology under the banner of a degree that promises immersion in the “rich culture of French and Francophone countries”. But there’s a lot more to it than that; especially with the Year Abroad team taking the time to warn us about cultural differences in various countries. For France: first names for family and close friends until told otherwise, businesses and institutions with very strict opening and closing times, and fashion tending to be more conservative just to start. Then there’s the fact that even this is not consistent: in my lycée the teachers refer to each other by first name to the point that I don’t know a lot of their surnames.  

We watch our favourite shows and say, “this is culture”. We look at bad situations and describe a “culture of harassment”. We describe people who are worldly and well-read as “cultured”. “Culture shock” leaves us not knowing where to go to pay in a restaurant, how to react to strangers or when to go to lunch.

Culture is in the food we eat; the way we build our houses; the way we spend our free time and when we have it; the way we dance and what we dance to; what we watch and how we react to it; what we wear and when and why; the way we talk and what we do or don’t talk about.

Where does this leave us? Culture is one of those disgustingly vague definitions: a collection of the behaviours, histories, media, actions and habits of a group of people at a particular time – even when, inevitably, some of those people are not behaving, remembering, acting, thinking, consuming or producing media in the same way. Describing a culture is like trying to pin down the exact flocking behaviours of all birds into a single, flat, permanent map. A good guess might be that culture is anything you could make an inside joke about because the only way to define culture seems to be by those borders that we stumble into when we leave our own culture in some way.

So, do we care? Yes. Because culture is important.

Our cultures define the way different people react to national or global problems; help us cope through isolation and crisis; and write the narratives we wish for in the future. It describes everything we choose to conform to or resist, and everything we do without thinking. An understanding of culture, however you define it, helps us to empathise with others and eases communication. Just try not to think about it too hard.


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Barbara Dawson

average rating is 3 out of 5

Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

average rating is 3 out of 5

Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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