Our relationships with each other, how we define outsiders, our norms and our values are largely dependent on our ‘culture’. However, culture is a vague word that needs to be defined scientifically before we dive into how culture and the society interact with each other. The simplest definition of culture is that culture is the collective of language, knowledge, values, norms, beliefs, habits and objects that are passed from one generation to the next in each society. Per this definition, what might be considered as normal or acceptable in one society, might be inappropriate to say the least in another society.
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traditional dance merida

Image: “In the Zócalo, Mérida.” by https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonssons/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonssons/4367153693/. License: CC BY-SA 2.0


Symbols in Culture

Symbols are a very important part of any culture. They depend on a meaning of a symbol that if taken outside the context would be meaningless or could have a completely different meaning in another culture. Gestures, flags, or symbols of love and hate are all part of symbolism in cultures. Therefore, a symbol is not in fact language, because a symbol is something that has a different meaning than its abstract meaning.

Flags can symbolize religion, nationalism or patriotism depending on the context and what is meant by the flag in the culture. On the other hand, a hand gesture can mean for instance you are crazy in one culture and simply mean you got a phone call in another!

Language and Culture

Another important part of a given culture is language. While different societies can share a language, certain slangs and expressions are usually specific for each culture and society. Language is defined as a group of symbols that a group of people use to communicate with each other. Language can be defined as verbal, written and sign language.

Additionally, when someone visits a society and does not use their language, it becomes very easy for the society to mark that individual as an outsider.

In certain cultures, language and gender interact with each other. A female uses certain pronouns, suffixes and prefixes that are different from those a male uses. Additionally, certain expressions and idioms can be gender-specific. These differences are an important part of the culture. Someone who learns a new language might get the basics, but he or she would understand these cultural differences only if they visit the society and get involved with the people.

In English-based cultures such differences are minimum. Most words come in a neutral form that is genderless. Policeman and policewoman is a word that can be gender specific in English while the word police officer is a neutral term.

Language differences can also be related to race or ethnicity. For instance, the slang for Afro-Americans such as nigger might be common among black individuals but are considered disrespectful if used by a white person.

Values in Culture

What we define is right or wrong and what governs our moral compass is usually what we call values. Values can be defined as a collective of shared ideas, norms, and morals that define right from wrong. Values can also include what is good or bad for you, what is desirable and what you should avoid.

In the United States, sociologists identified ten important values that can define the American set of shared values. These values can be in fact generalized to any society and one can argue that a society to be functional must have at least these ten values among the citizens.

Individualism is the first and perhaps most important value. It simply means that everyone is responsible for his or her actions. Achievement and success are highly valued in our society. Activity and work should be a priority for adults followed by leisure activities.

Science should come before one’s opinion or religion because science can be easily examined, proved or disputed. People in a modernized society look for comfort. People look up to efficiency as they live in a competitive society, they want services to get better. They want their life to be practical.

People in the United States share the value of equality. People in any society want to be moral, humane and help those in need. People always seek freedom and the right to express themselves. Finally, unfortunately, the feeling of superiority is still shared in many communities all over the world which can lead to problems in the society.

Norms in Culture

Values, when they are strong enough and become part of one’s daily life, are called norms. Such norms might be violated without serious consequences, folkways, or one might have to stick to them, mores.

Mores are values that have moral and ethical relationship to the culture. Taboos are very strong mores that if violated can be extremely offensive to the people of a certain culture. These norms are part of informal values.

Laws are formal norms that cannot be violated in the society without facing legal consequences. For instance, stealing is against formal norms and is criminalized by the law.

Cultural Change and Cultural Shock

While cultural values, norms and beliefs might seem difficult to change, it was proved that culture does in fact change over time. However, non-material culture, i.e. norms, values and beliefs, take long time to change. Material culture, i.e. clothes and objects related to culture, are known to change faster when the society tries to adopt to a new way of life.

People who travel from one place to another might develop a cultural shock when they enter a society with a completely new and different culture. The differences in cultures might make it difficult for that individual to integrate and socialize in the new society. What is considered a complete aberration to him or her, might be considered as completely normal in the new society. Such shock might make the person anxious, frustrated or depressed.

Once one gets into contact with the new culture, he or she might enjoy the increased liberty for instance. This stage of shock is called the honeymoon stage. This is usually followed by a frustration phase when the individual is in shock and having difficult time to integrate.

The individual then undergoes an adjustment phase where his or her norms, values and beliefs start to change. Eventually, the individual enters the mastery phase where they become completely integrated with the new society and culture.

Multi-cultures nowadays become common in any society because of easy immigration and transportation. Different ethnicities and cultures learn to work, live and accept each other. Eventually, cultural dilution happens, in which minorities adopt to the culture of the majority in the new society.

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