Opinion Piece: Understanding Culture

Culture is something that is often fantasized, mysticized, and considered as a major barrier to truly connecting with people from other countries.

If you ask an academic what culture is, they’ll tell you that it’s the collective beliefs, ideas and social behaviours of a group of people from a particular location. That’s a pretty good definition, but each of those characteristics would need to be unpacked further, which is quite a lengthy task.

Another way to describe culture is simply this: a way a group of people has agreed to behave to maintain social cooperation with each other.

When you think of it like that, it’s a lot less confusing or mystical. Thinking of culture like this makes it easier to behave in a way that helps you integrate into a new culture. It especially increases your flexibility because it makes you realize that your cultural norms are great for mass cooperation in your own culture, but not necessarily the new one you’re in. There’s no need to hold on to your prior behaviours because they won’t be of strong service in your new environment.

And that makes sense, right? If you come with a different norm that enhances cooperation in your culture, but is unknown or, less likely, offensive in the new culture, it’s going to add a tremor to the collective harmony.

All right, so that’s the broad and simplistic message about culture. Where things start to get complicated in particular is the social behaviours part of culture. But bear in mind: they’re done to make social cooperation easier, and perhaps predictable. There’s a reason behind the actions, which that group of people has collectively agreed makes sense.

If you consider Japan, for example, they:

  1. Leave their shoes at the door (because they, collectively, believe shoes are dirty).
  2. Bow when they meet someone (because it’s an explicit, clear way to acknowledge someone and show respect, which are beneficial characteristics in relationships).
  3. Stand patiently in organized lines (because they collectively agree on a first-come-first-serve principal, which ensures fairness).

And that’s just a broad look at the social behaviours in Japan. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that the culture shifts from region to region. The way that Tokyoites behave culturally is very different from the way Osakans behave culturally. What those particular groups of people have collectively agreed upon as good for the social order differs. And this is just because they developed in geographically different places, although stemming from a similar foundation and infrastructure.

What do you think? Is this an overly simplistic view, accurate enough, or is it minimizing the fantasy of culture a bit too much? Let’s hear your views in the comments or @ us on Twitter (@dootjpn).

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