What is Culture?

Monthly Archives: January 2017

What is Culture?


All of us are part of a culture (our in-group) and have culture – but we often don’t think about our culture until we bump up against difference. This can make us insular in our perspectives of others who share space with us in our world.

There is a wonderful scene in the film, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the book by C. S. Lewis, where Lucy meets the faun, Mr. Tumnus. The meeting of this little girl and a mythical figure is quite endearing as each tries to figure out the other: “‘What are you – some kind of beardless dwarf?’ asks Mr. Tumnus. Lucy holds out her hand in a gesture of friendship and he is perplexed. Sensing his hesitancy, Lucy says, ‘You shake it.’ ‘Oh, but why?’ replies the faun. ‘Well, actually…I don’t know,’ says Lucy.” Culture is invisible to us–we don’t realize that we do things a certain way, and when asked, we really don’t know the why behind the what.

Building Blocks of Culture

Values. The most basic of those structures are our values: those fundamental, unmovable tenets that make us who we are and that shape all other structures in our attitudinal system. They’re a psychological assessment, really, of those things, those concepts, and those ideas most dear to us. We acquire them at an early age from people we trust, before rational thought begins to play a role in what we know and hold to be true. The world is a particular way for us because that’s what our parents, our teachers, our coaches, and our religious figures have told us. We’re not in a position to challenge such beliefs—we simply accept them for what they are. Such values can (and do) change, but they do so at glacial speed. Occasionally, as the result of trauma or some cataclysmic event in our lives—a divorce, the death of a child, the loss of a job, a particularly profound betrayal—we’ll find that one or more of our basic values has changed. But it’s a rare event for most people, and a good thing it doesn’t happen more often. Those values serve as the foundation for everything else in our attitudinal system.

Beliefs. Values provide the basis for our beliefs: those truths we hold to be self-evident because they are based on our values. If friendship, for example, is a fundamental value for us, then we believe that genuine friends will behave in certain ways and will expect certain things of us. We, in turn, can expect certain things of them and will be more than willing to go out of our way to help our friends—because we believe in them.

Attitudes. Attitudes, in turn, arise from and are consistent with those beliefs. It’s a navigational term, really, meaning orientation or position. Thus, an attitude gives some meaning and direction to our beliefs, serving as a guide to general thinking and our views of life over the near term. If a fundamental value of ours tells us that living a healthy lifestyle is important, then a consistent belief might be that smoking cigarettes is not a good idea. The attitude that arises from that belief would tell us, for example, that we not only shouldn’t smoke, but that we should encourage others—our children, our employees, and our friends—not to smoke.

Behavior. Behavior is the direct result of all these structures and is found at the uppermost level of our attitudinal system. It not only gives meaning and life to our more basic attitudes and beliefs, but it is the most visible portion of our system of beliefs. It may be hard to tell what a friend is thinking, but it’s fairly easy to see what he or she is doing. We observe behaviors and infer the attitudes and beliefs that animate them. Behavior is often expressed in the form of opinion: for the moment, at least, it’s our opinion that we will vote for this person, dine at that restaurant, or purchase a particular brand. It’s all subject to change, of course, and is less predictable than the underlying attitudes, beliefs, and values that support it.

Cultural Metaphors. Culture is abstract until we make it concrete. That is why using metaphors can help us visualize what values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and norms (rules for living) are.

Every culture has a way for expressing the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” For example, in Chinese, it is, “Hearing a hundred times is not as good as seeing once: 百闻不如一见.

After reading the next section on cultural metaphor, try this exercise, “Images of Culture.” You find that culture becomes more vivid and obtainable when you can visualize it. Instructions: Find a visual image of what “culture” means to you. Create a document that you can upload to share with others. In this document, you will put the picture (include its URL if it’s from the Internet, or put your name if you took a photo yourself) as well as write about 100 words describing what culture means to you. It’s even better if you can share with others and see what their ideas of culture are.

The iceberg metaphor has long been the most popular rendition of culture. Most of an iceberg–90%–is submerged below the water line, so what we see is its tip. Interculturalists will describe behavior as being the tip of the iceberg. It’s what we see most readily–nonverbal gestures, language, how people dress, the foods they eat, and what customs they practice. But it’s what is below the water line, what we can’t see, that creates the challenge of understanding someone else’s culture – the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that support what people actually do. Understanding what is below the water line helps us to begin to decode the why behind the what.

Significance. A metaphor is a figure of speech that is representative of something else. They help us compare one thing to another–they are figurative comparisons, and like mental schema, can help us make sense out of something abstract or unfamiliar. Metaphors are abundant in human communication exchanges and we take them for granted, unaware of how much we use them. Metaphors help us make sense of common experiences and when we use them our understanding is automatic as long as we understand the connotation behind them. Every language has the possibility of containing innumerable idiomatic expressions, which lends to the creativity of how we use language.

Metaphors are powerful meaning-making devices and there has actually been a significant amount of scientific research dedicated to understanding it. We actually use metaphors more than we realize in our everyday life. Such metaphors are conceptual devices that aid us in transferring abstract ideas into concrete understandings. We are told that:
• Metaphors structure thinking
• Metaphors structure knowledge
• Metaphor is central to abstract language
• Metaphor is grounded in physical experience

What we can learn. Here is what this means. When we encounter something new, unfamiliar, or confusing, we automatically make assumptions about our experiences by applying them to abstract concepts. In this sense, metaphors can actually shape our perception and communication. For example, we use the saying, “time is money”. Time is abstract but money is concrete. We understand this intuitively and could also say, “Don’t waste my time,” “I don’t have time,” or that someone is “Living on borrowed time.”

The scientific study of this theory has determined that metaphors are not simply rhetorical devices but actually conceptual tools that are linked to our thoughts, perceptions, and understanding. In other words, we use metaphors to help conceptualize our experience–and the concepts we use actually structure how we perceive and relate to everyday life. Metaphor analysis is a starting point for understanding culture’s influence on who we are and how our societies function by providing insight into understanding the elusiveness, complexity, and paradoxical nature of culture.



For an in-depth examination of how cultural metaphors can help us understand cultural aspects of national cultures, there is a wonderful book, Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys through 32 Countries, by Martin J. Gannon.

For a more in-depth exploration of culture, please read, Intercultural Communication for Global Business: How Leaders Communicate for Success (Routledge, 2017, E.A. Tuleja).

Deignan, A. (2005). Metaphor and corpus linguistics. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing.
Gannon, M. J. (2012). Understanding global cultures: Metaphorical journeys through 31 nations, clusters of nations, continents, and diversity (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kövecses, Z. (2005). Metaphor in Culture: Universality and variation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Lakoff, G. (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor. In A. Orotny (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (2nd ed.) (pp. 202–251). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

E.A. Tuleja, Intercultural Communication for Business, GlobeComm Publishing, 2015.