The many meanings of culture

Culture is a word with many meanings and uses. In 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled close to 160 different definitions of the word, and since then many more have been published. Edward Tylor was the first to define culture as something different from art and museums.

In 1871, he described culture as "… that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." With this definition, he suggested that different societies have different skills and capabilities, and that there are no biological differences determined by birth. Since then, culture has been defined countless times, but Tylor’s definition is still valid.

Look below the surface

Culture is often described as an iceberg in the sense that some characteristics are visible to everyone, but most are hidden below the surface. Observable cultural characteristics include language, gender, age, behavior, traditions, ethnicity, food, clothes, music, art and humor.

None of the observable characteristics make much sense without understanding the drivers behind them, and these are hidden below the surface. There you will find religion, values, norms, unwritten rules, symbols, stories and shared assumptions, so it is worth diving down there and taking a good look.

Software of the mind

One of the definitions of culture most commonly used today is that of the Dutch organizational sociologist Geert Hofstede. Hofstede defines culture as "...the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another". In other words, he sees culture as patterns of thinking, feeling and acting, which every person carries within him or herself from early childhood.

In a sense, he sees people as being programmed by their environment to think, feel and act as everyone around them. However, he also emphasizes that he doesn’t see people as being programmed the way computers are. On the contrary, Hofstede believes people do have a basic ability to react in new, creative and unexpected ways.

Karen, JPO - "Learning about your own culture as well as the new culture" (1:29)

Culture is not everything

One we have an understanding of our culture’s importance to our actions, it is important to note that culture cannot stand alone as the only way to understand other people. Some argue that other themes such as power relations, gender issues, status and age influence our actions and ways of interacting just as much as our culture does.

A matter of perception

Culture is always a matter of perception. When a group of Mexicans and Taiwanese were asked to describe a culture which we will call X, they came up with the lists below. 

CULTURE A described culture X as ... CULTURE B described culture X as ...
Rushed, time-conscious Relaxed, easy-going
Reserved Friendly, outgoing

Realistic, hard-headed


Team workers Independent
Quality-conscious Output-oriented
Unemotional Emotional

Serious, businesslike

    Fun-loving, joking
Self-controlled Self-indulgent

The lists show that there are no fixed definitions of any culture. It is all a matter of the eyes that see. If you are from a culture where family and personal relations are important, you might perceive people from culture X as serious and business-like, whereas if you are from a culture where efficiency and time consciousness is important, you may perceivepeople from culture X as more fun-loving and joking compared to yourself.

This means that if you say “people from culture X are easy-going”, it says just as much about you and your cultural background as it does about culture X. There are no right or wrong perceptions, only the different cultural “glasses” we see through.

Right, wrong or different?

When you judge other cultures according to your own, it is called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that your own culture is centrally important, and that all other cultures are measured in relation to yours. When ethnocentric people travel, for instance, they only see good and bad copies of their own culture. An ethnocentric North American might rate each country he visits by how easy it is to buy a coke and a hamburger.

Its opposite is cultural relativism, which means understanding a culture on its own terms. Cultural relativists accept traditions of other people, even though they do not make sense according to their own cultural background. A true cultural relativist would for instance accept oppression of women as a natural part of a local culture. “It is not right, it is not wrong, it is just different” might be their motto.

In reality, neither a 100% ethnocentric nor a 100% cultural relativistic viewpoint is desirable. The ethnocentric person will only experience distorted images of his own culture, while the cultural relativist is incapable of taking a moral stance. Of course, you only have your own norms and standards to judge a culture by.

What is important is to try to understand a culture on its own terms before you make a judgment. In other words, you have to know what you are talking about. Practice with these cultural dilemmas.

Globalization of cultures

With increased international trade, cooperation and information technology, people are interacting across boundaries like never before. The world has truly come closer. Many people study abroad or travel or work in other countries for longer or shorter periods of time.

To a great extent, those people have access to the same information, entertainment and products. While this creates a gap between the rich and the poor, who do not have the same opportunities, it also means that cultures are not independent “bubbles”, but rather continuously changing and influencing each other.

Obtain your information about your host culture

  • Read travel guides (e.g. Lonely Planet) that provide comprehensive information about history, culture and customs and recommend further reading
  • Visit your local library and search for books, films and music from your host culture.
  • Download relevant podcasts and prepare for your stay while on the plane.
  • Talk to people from your host country, if possible, or people who have been there before.


  • How would you define culture?
  • What does your “cultural iceberg” consist of above and below the surface?
  • How does your culture shape your perception of other cultures?
  • What will you do to avoid ethnocentrism?

References for this text

  • Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn: ”Culture”, 1952.
  • Edward Tylor: “Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom”, 1871.
  • Geert Hostede: “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind”, 1991.
  • Gary Wederspahn: ”The Bridge”, 1981.