What is culture? What cultures do we identify with, and why does it matter?

There are an estimated 350 definitions of culture. With so many definitions, it almost seems too broad and encompassing to even be useful.  However, there are ways to clarify the term and to understand how it impacts us.

Webster’s dictionary states that culture is “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” The socially transmitted almost sounds ominous! This definition predominantly relates to the cultures of race and ethnicity. Gender, religion, geographic location, sexual orientation, and social class, to name a few, are also cultures.  These are TYPES of cultures, and there are also ELEMENTS of each of these cultures. It makes sense that there are so many definitions of culture. There are countless combinations of types or elements of culture that can be written into a definition.

The culture wheel (below) is one of the best displays of culture I have found.

I ask my students and workshop participants to designate four of the cultures inside or outside of the wheel that they most identify with. To aid in this process, I ask them to answer the following questions:

  1. What do you most identify with?
  2. What do you spend the most time thinking about?
  3. What do you spend the most time in or doing?
  4. What do you value or think is most important?


After selecting the four cultures that most apply, I ask participants to rank order them. This is a little more difficult, but it is so important to identify which culture is most salient for us. Of course, this can change during our lifetime, even from day to day. If we recognize the culture(s) that we most identify with it helps us to gauge our response or interactions with those whose cultures are different than our own. An example: My race is Caucasian, it may or may not be one of my cultures that I most identify with – yet, it IS one of my cultures. We all have gender as a culture. For some it is more salient than for others. This is true of every type of culture.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing culture, its meaning, and its impact in our every day lives. I invite my readers to contact me for further discussion, or to explore with me how to bring the concept of culture and cultural identity to the workplace in a positive and effective way. To learn more about my services, please contact me.

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