A Dishful of Culture

I talk a lot about culture and culturally determined values (not yet here, give me time). Maybe I should define what I mean by those.

Culture is essentially values that are shared in a group of people that have something in common. It concerns questions about what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s clean and what’s dirty, what’s beautiful and what’s ugly etc. All cultures think they’re in favor of what’s right and clean and beautiful but disagreements remain about what gets put where.

Valid or irresponsible cultural appropriation?

These values are applied to real world problems that societies must solve to survive, such as:

* different people have different levels of ability in different things,

* humans have individual consciousness but live in groups,

* what a person wants for themselves is not always what the group wants from them,

* humans come in two basic biological sexes,

* humans cannot know the future but have to plan for it.

This process results in cultural practices. These are not culture themselves, they’re signs that a culture exists.

Like language cultural values are acquired unconsciously as a person grows from infant to child to adolescent (apparently most people’s values are fixed by the time they reach adolescence and change very little after that).

And like language cultural norms are very complicated and most people most of the time have no real conscious knowledge of them.

And like language, cultural values are imperfectly learned which causes changes that change the system over (long periods of) time.

Unlike language, people don’t ‘have’ culture (they have their individual experiences), rather they belong to a culture, or rather cultures as different types of identity only party overlap in a given population.

Within any culture that’s big enough (lets arbitrarily say 10,000 people) you can find the entire range of human behavior and values. But when you make comparisons across cultures there are strong differences in how people respond to the same situation.

A couple of examples (from memory, sorry no cite)

One study looked at Chinese and American students and examined their preferences for doing projects at school. Somewhere over 80 % of Americans strongly preferred to work alone rathr than in groups while Chinese students similarly preferred group projects by a similar margin.

Another would be from a business class (attended by Europeans). They were asked to answer the same question about problems in a hypothetical factory. About 75 % of French students assumed the manager wasn’t exercising enough control, a similar percentage of Germans cited unclear written rules of conduct and a similar percentage of British students thought it was an interpersonal problem that could be fixed with some personal mediation.

The smaller your sample size the more confusing and contradictory trying to map a person’s behavior onto cultural models will be since no one is an absolutely standard representative of their cultures.

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