10 Cultural Universals: You Are What You Eat, How Values Become Culture

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what we value is who we are.

We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab.

They define our culture, and they direct our social norms.

This grouping of the 10 Cultural Universals also includes beliefs and rituals, which tie in with values in ways we’ll discuss in upcoming posts.

You Are What You Eat

What we are fed as children – in the forms of both formal and informal education – is, more often than not, what we accept and value as adults.

As Kilroy J. Oldster wrote in Dead Toad Scrolls:

“A great deal of the global stimuli that we view comes to us without major effort. Daily a person scans and screens a wide barrage of solicited and unsolicited material. What information a society pays attention to creates the standards and principles governing citizens’ life. A nation’s discourse translates its economic, social, and cultural values to impressionable children.” 

Our national discourse, what we project and adulate as a society, the meaning and importance we place on certain beliefs, ideals, and attitudes – these are the things our children consume.

We are what we eat. Our children will become what we feed them.

Education vs. Ignorance

“The right to a quality education is, I believe, the perfect path to bridge the gap between different cultures and to reconcile various civilizations…Ignorance is by far the biggest danger and threat to humankind.” – Moza bint Nasser

If we feed children quality food, in the form of education, they will value knowledge, critical thinking, and the ethics and moral teachings therein.

If we feed them garbage, in the form of false narratives, baseless “facts”, and unwarranted prejudice, they will value conspiracies, groupthink, and stereotypes.

A culture creates its own values and also consumes them.

So, remember, whatever values you cultivate within your culture should be cultivated with care. Values are meant to keep society healthy. They’re meant to show what integrity means to you as a people and to show others what you stand for.

What We Eat

Like social norms, the beliefs and rituals of your culture are what actualize our underlying values.

Beliefs are what we eat; rituals are how we eat.

Rituals, especially, are values in action.

We’ll talk about both in the coming weeks.

10 Cultural Universals: The Yurt, A Nomadic Home

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how shelters are illustrations of culture.

A shelter’s attributes inform you about the area’s climate, the structural materials inform you about the type of resources available in the region, the layout informs you about the social elements of the culture, and the home’s architecture and design inform you about the culture’s aesthetic sensibilities.

To put it simply, structures are incredibly informative in the study of culture.

In today’s post, we’ll take a virtual walk-through of one of these shelters and learn a little about the culture within.

Design

The Yurt is a circular home in Central Asia, emblematic of nomadic Mongolian tribes.

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In the 13th century book Travels in the Eastern Countries, Guillaume de Rubrouck wrote of the yurt:

“They [the nomads] put their houses on wheels, and woven rods are used as walls for their homes. The walls are enclosed on the top forming the roof of the house. They are covered with white felt and it is often coated with lemon or bone powder to make it sparkle.”

Rubrouck goes on to say that the black felt opening in the rooftop is designed elaborately with themed illustrations.

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A felt wall hanging at the home’s entrance is also a norm. These wall hangings are usually colorfully artistic renderings of birds and other animals, trees, and vines, revealing the importance of nature to the Mongolian nomadic tribes.

Materials

As forever-travelers, nomads need a home that can spring up out of transportable materials, which the yurt can do, although it’s also used as a more permanent structure.

The wooden frame of a yurt is collapsable and is often draped in animal skins or wool felt, which keeps the cool in during summer and the heat during winter. The wool felt is obtained from sheep often shepherded by the nomadic pastoralists, while the timber to form the structure cannot be found on the steppes, which don’t have trees, and must be sourced through trade in the nearby valleys.

Modern yurts also have a double layer of canvas to protect from the elements.

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The structure includes three to five orange mesh walls, depending on the size of the yurt. The sloped roof with a hole in the center is a primary feature, allowing for a chimney when cooking or heating the home.

The yurt also has a wooden floor, covered by carpets, again for insulation.

Learn

As you virtually walk through the yurt and learn of its build and design, what do you learn about the nomadic Mongolian peoples who inhabit these structures?

Tell me in the comment section.

10 Cultural Universals: Hearts & Hearths, How Shelters Tell Stories of Culture

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Yurt, adobe, Siheyuan, izba, stilt, igloo, turf.

Some of these housing types, you may recognize; others, you may not. But each of them illustrate character traits of a culture…that is, if you’re willing to look closely.

Along with food, clothing, and transport, shelter is a basic cultural element in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

The homes we choose to live in tell a story of who we are. They are historical artifacts that provide archeologists a look into the past, and they are modern snapshots that inform others about who we are and what we deem most important in life.

Whether the focal point of a home is the kitchen, a social room, or even a temple built within, our hearts are revealed by our hearths.

So let’s take a look at both.

Hearts & Hearths

What can a shelter tell us about the culture and about life in a region?

Here are some things to consider when discussing the cultural elements of shelters:

  • Climate – The climate of the region determines the needs of the home. Stilt houses in Cambodia, for example, to avoid flooding, or thick insulation in locations with hard, cold winters.
  • Structural materials – Structural materials for homes are best sourced locally. You’re more likely to find bamboo used in construction in Asian countries than in the West, or adobe clay in the desert than in the arctic.blog43-6
  • Social elements – Whether the residence is built around a courtyard, likethe Siheyuan homes of China, or is set up with individual rooms for more independent and private living or a single room for more commune-style living,  the social elements of each culture determine a home’s layout and design.
  • Aesthetic – From the vaulted ceilings of Italian homes to the bamboo roofs of Bali, from the ornately designed doors of Icelandic turf houses to the homey thatched cottages of England, the aesthetic and architecture of a home is obviously the most eye-catching and expressive element of the culture. Aesthetics tell us what the culture finds beautiful and most comfortable.

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In essence – and in reality – home is where the heart is. Each form of shelter is a monument to the people. This is why homes around the world inform our understanding the people who inhabit them and the culture they engender.

10 Cultural Universals: Tuktuks, Gondolas, & Travel

From tuktuks in Thailand to gondolas in Venice, transportation takes on unique forms across the world. And these unique forms epitomize local culture.

Part two of transportation in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals will outline two compelling forms of transport and how they influence local culture.

The TukTuk

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Versions of a tuktuk, also known as an auto-rickshaw, can be found everywhere in the world, from South America to Asia. But tuktuks are particularly emblematic of Thailand.

Though they originated in Japan, they were embraced by Thailand, where they were imported during the 1930s. Eventually, the Thais took over production and Thai-made tuk-tuks were born.

Bangkok is packed with the three-wheeled open-air motorcycles. The smaller ride can wheel in and out of narrow alleyways and amongst all the traffic, where a traditional four-wheeled cab might get squeezed.

While these taxis should logically be the cheaper option, tuktuk drivers know what they’re doing.

As Greg Rodgers of tripsavvy put it, “The road-hardened drivers are experts at somehow convincing travelers to pay more than they normally would for a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi to go the same distance.”

This is the culture of Bangkok. An overabundance of colorful tuktuks and their tuktuk drivers, trying to make a buck off of fresh-off-the-boat types.

Haggling is part of the game, part of the culture. But, as Rodgers notes, unless you know what you’re doing, a traditional metered cab is probably a cheaper and more comfortable option.

The Gondola

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Certain iconic forms of transport spring to mind when thinking of a specific place or culture. The gondola is one of them.

Navigating the city’s historic canals, the gondola – and the singing gondoliers who guide them – is emblematic of Venetian culture. 

Dating back to 1094, the gondola’s structure was specifically designed to navigate the shallows of the Venetian lagoon. By 1562, gondola culture had evolved and been so embraced that the boats were excessively ornamented, so much so that legal restrictions were placed on their decoration. Thereafter, they became uniformly black and were allowed only three types of flourishes – a prow, a curly tail, or a pair of seahorses and a multi-pronged ferro.

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In the early years, gondolas were often shared among four people – three gondoliers and a fourth man who remained onshore to book the gondola for public transport.

Nowadays, gondolas are almost exclusively a tourist attraction – one that can bring in around $150,000 annually for your average gondolier.

That’s not without putting in the work. The profession is now controlled by a guild, where training and a comprehensive exam is required. Not only must gondoliers be incredible oarsmen, they must also have adequate foreign language skills, and intimate knowledge of Venetian landmarks and history.

Needless to say, this form of transport – like unique forms in many other places in the world – has become a cornerstone of the city’s culture.

When you think gondola, you think Venice.

When you think tuktuk, you think Bangkok.

When you think bicycle, you think Amsterdam.

This is how culturally significant transportation can be.

10 Cultural Universals: Transportation Culture & Social Movements

Amsterdam is a bicycler’s paradise.

Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Bali.

Knowing your way around the subway or the Tube is essential in NYC or London, respectively.

People all across the world have a common need: to get from here to there.

Whether on foot, by bus, or aboard a gondola, the methods of travel in every nation or region are unique and practical to the culture born there.

Last week, we discussed traditional clothing and how clothing culture evolves with the times.

This week, we’ll take a look at transport and its evolution, a topic which falls under the same umbrella of basics – along with food, clothing, and shelter – as part of our series on the 10 Cultural Universals.

Practicality and Culture

Each culture has its own public and preferred methods of transport. These methods vary across regions, based largely upon two things:

1) Practicality – the most functional mode of transport, considering the landscape and infrastructure of the area

2) Social norms & values – the social norms and values that drive these transport choices

The favored method of transport is often chosen due to the type of transport culture that’s cultivated in any given region. It’s also chosen based upon practicality (which usually influences why society cultivates that type of transport culture, in the first place).

The Bicycling Capital

Let’s take Amsterdam, for example.

‘Bike Street: Cars are Guests’

Amsterdam is often called “the bicycling capital of the world,” and this is largely due to a social movement that happened in the ‘70s.

While prior to WWII, bicycling was already the predominant form of transportation across the Netherlands, car ownership exploded in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was soon so popular that roads were congested, and bicyclists were literally shunted to the side.

With more motor vehicles zipping around, the number of road fatalities sky-rocketed. 3,000 people – including 450 children – were killed by drivers in 1971.

‘Stop the Child Murder’ Social Movement

This is when a social movement formed, called ‘Stop de Kindermoord’ (Stop the Child Murder). The movement’s name was derived from journalist Vic Langenhoff’s article of the same title, which he’d written after his own child had been killed on the road.

The Middle East oil crisis of 1973 also informed the move toward reinstating bicycling as the primary form of transport. As the Dutch’s reliability on foreign oil was shaken, the motor vehicle seemed less sustainable than previously thought.

Thus, the Dutch government renewed their investment in bicycling infrastructure – with more cycling paths, smoother biking surfaces, parking facilities, bike-sharing programs, and clear signage and lights.

Biking is now a daily part of most Dutch people’s daily lives, which means that children grow up with this cycle-centric primary socialization. This makes for a homegrown biking culture, ever popular in a world promoting greener transport options.

In this way, Amsterdam’s traditional and revitalized biking culture is ahead of the pack, and forward-thinking “smart city” cultures are following in their bike tracks (see: Barcelona, Mexico City).

Next week, we’ll discuss transport culture further.

10 Cultural Universals: Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements

Last week, we talked about the dignity of food culture with tips from Anthony Bourdain.

This week, we’ll discuss another topic within the same theme of cultural fundamentals: clothing.

Grouped together with food, shelter, and transport, clothing is one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

It’s easy to understand why.

Clothing viscerally represents culture in a way that’s often traditional, fashionable, and practical, all at once.

Clothing tradition also evolves with the times, as we’ll discuss in the section below, entitled “Cultural Clothing Movements.”

Tradition

In many parts of the world, traditional clothing has gone by the wayside, traded in for modern Western clothing.

Or, in some cases, traditional dress is worn only for special occasions, like births, weddings, funerals, or other big life events.

In some parts of the world, however, traditional clothing is still everyday wear.

For instance, it is not uncommon to see the Newar people of Nepal wearing traditional woven clothing in everyday life.

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Women’s dress is called Kurta Suruwal and includes a patterned blouse, covered by a draped scarf, and loose pants cinched around the ankles.

If married, women also wear Tika – a red powder – on the browline of their forehead.

Fashion

Many Nepali men, on the other hand, have transitioned to Western wear. It’s more common to see men wearing jeans and t-shirts or button-ups than it is to see them in traditional garb.

In this way, some part of Nepali culture has moved away from the traditional to what might be considered modern fashion.

Cultural Clothing Movements

Sometimes, culture evolves as social freedoms do. Often, it takes a movement to progress these changes.

For instance, in the case of forced hijab in Iran.

For nearly forty years, Iranian social codes have obliged women to wear the hijab in public. This has been Iranian law since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

But recently, with the help of social media, widespread protest of forced hijab has compelled some to shed or revolt against this cultural tradition.

This protest is not a complete rejection of the tradition or the hijab, itself. Rather, many believe it should be a woman’s right to choose whether she wears the hijab or not.

Masih Alinejad is one of the advocates driving this movement for social change. Alinejad started a Facebook page in 2014 called My Stealthy Freedom, in which she posts pics of Iranian women out in public, removing their hijabs.

While the regime has cracked down on the revolt, the campaign for freeing women of forced hijab is going strong and may just result in a cultural clothing revolution.

This is how clothing traditions evolve and how culture, inevitably, changes.

10 Cultural Universals: The Dignity of Food (tips from Anthony Bourdain)

Anthony Bourdain said it best:

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that food is one of the 10 Cultural Universals. Along with shelter, clothing, and transport, food is a fundamental part of culture that celebrates it in a big way.

Through food and travel, Anthony Bourdain deeply inspired those of us who are interested in exploring, learning about, and understanding other cultures. He saw the power and dignity of food and how, among so many other things, a meal brings all of humanity together.

In deep respect and honor of Bourdain’s tragic passing just a couple weeks ago, I’ve compiled and condensed some of his greatest words of wisdom regarding food, culture, travel, and life.

#1: “I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”

Food, just like life, should be an adventure.

While traveling or living abroad, you may face a meal that’ll make your stomach turn. But sometimes, you must take risks. Sometimes, you must grit your teeth and take that first bite.

Rejecting someone else’s food can feel like a personal rejection – or even a cultural rejection.

Accepting it, even if it’s not to your liking, shows your hosts that you care enough to make the effort and that you respect what they’ve created.

#2: “I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.”

Perhaps one of the most useful tips for travelers or soon-to-be expats is to be not afraid to play the fool.

My book, I am the Monkey, stresses this theme. It’s humbling to remember you are the odd-one-out looking in, not the other way around.

As the monkey, you must learn to be comfortable dropping your guard.

This goes for learning how to eat properly in other cultures too.

Never used chopsticks? Go on, give it a try. Sure, you’ll look clumsy at first, but soon enough, you’ll be capable.

The point is – you must not let feeling foolish get in the way of learning.

If you do, anxiety will be your roadblock to success across cultures.

Follow Bourdain’s advice and don’t be afraid to look like an idiot. In fact, embrace it.

#3: “I don’t have to agree with you to like you or respect you.”

Food is unique to the culture in which it was created, which is a beautiful thing.

Sometimes, the dish is not always pretty. But, more often than not, it’s the one aspect of a culture that can make all of us drop our pretenses, if we’re willing, and just appreciate each other, human to human.

And “dropping our pretenses” doesn’t mean we must stop talking, stop learning.

While sharing a meal, keep the conversation alive, like a pro:

“I don’t go in asking hard-news questions, but incredibly enough, again and again, just by sitting down with people over food and giving them a platform where I can listen to them, they say extraordinary things that can be very political in their implications.” – Bourdain

Keep talking. But more so, listen.

Sharing a meal with someone already demonstrates that you like and respect them, even if you don’t agree with their intrinsic beliefs.

Whenever you’re abroad, take a deep dive into your host’s food culture. Share a meal with locals.

You may just find that food is more than filling; it’s a teacher of compassion.

“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.” – Bourdain

 

10 Cultural Universals: Rites of Passage & Familial Roles

Last week in our ten-part series of the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about family structures.

This week, we’ll continue our discussion of family by identifying the roles of family members and rites of passage across two cultures.

Let’s travel to Mexico and Algeria to experience them both.

Familial Roles

Roles of family members form the structure and the line of authority within a family.

Mexico

The Mexican family is patriarchal and follows traditional gender roles. The father is the authoritarian figure, while the wife is generally submissive.

This cultural trend is believed to have developed from the 16th century Spanish conquistadors’ treatment of native women. After they’d been impregnated, they were treated with violence and threats of abuse in order to be made subservient.

The resulting “mestizo” children grew up with this devaluation of women normalized, which evolved the roles that exist today, particularly the concept of “machismo.”

Algeria

In Berber culture, traditional gender roles also reign supreme, with men working outside the home and women tending the house and raising the children. The eldest son steps into the authoritarian role of financial caregiver in place of the father, when he retires or passes away.

Grandparents, as well, play an important story-telling role in Berber society.

In the recent past, the entire family – often three or four generations – would gather around the elkanoun (fireplace) and listen to stories of morality told by the grandmother and grandfather.

The stories served as educational guides for their family, especially the young children.

Rites of Passage

Mexico/Latin America

A quinceañera is a rite of passage in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central and South American countries.

During this huge 15th birthday party, which is both a social and religious event, the family celebrates the young woman’s passage from girlhood to womanhood. The celebration is also meant to highlight how meaningful society and family are in the life of women.

A mass, attended by her family and godparents, commences the celebration, followed by a large party with music, dancing, and food.

During the party, the young woman might present her younger sister with a doll as a symbolic gesture of passing from childhood to adulthood.

Algeria

In Algeria, a boy’s first haircut is celebrated with a big party to which all of the family is invited.

The wisest, oldest male member of the family – usually the grandpa on the dad’s side – cuts the first strand, and a traditional bread called lamsemen is cooked and placed on the young boy’s head.

Often, the grandma says to the child, “You will be strong and fat, like the bread.”

During Carem (Ramadan) the first time a child fasts, they are placed on the roof of the house during the Call to Prayer. There, they eat their meal – a special dish of eggs and bercoukes.

These are just a few important rites of passage and familial roles across cultures. Next week, we’ll talk about FCTS (food, clothing, transport, and shelter), some of the very basic aspects of culture.

10 Cultural Universals: The Role of Family in Culture

We’ve talked about geography and language and their relationship with culture over the past couple weeks.

Family is the third universal in our ten-part series.

Whether you’re from a culture which is centered around a nuclear family or one that embraces an extended family model, the family unit is an integral part of your cultural and your personal development.

This is why family dynamics are a common focus of cultural studies. From family member roles to labor division to rites of passage, culture begins at home and the family is its core.

Collectivist vs. Individualist

While there are obviously many family structures across cultures, let’s focus this discussion on two main distinctions: collectivist and individualist cultures.

One of the main ways in which these groups differ is in their family dynamics. Individuality is obviously stressed in individualist cultures, while interdependence and conformity are valued by collectivist cultures. And these dynamics are prevail within the family.

As Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., writes in “Cultural Differences in Family Dynamics”:

“Individualistic cultures stress self-reliance, decision-making based on individual needs, and the right to a private life. In collectivist cultures absolute loyalty is expected to one’s immediate and extended family/tribe.”

In other words, collectivist cultures put the needs of the family/group (the collective) before individual needs.

Nuclear vs. Extended

In examining the prevalence of nuclear and extended families in developing and developed countries, the un.org writes:

“The presence of two adult members per household in developed countries is an indication of the predominance of the nuclear type of family; on the other hand, the presence of more than two or three adult members in a household in developing countries indicates prevalence of an extended type of family or of a nuclear family with adult children present.”

The nuclear family is composed of parents and their children. This model is commonly followed by Western cultures and developed countries. Children are often raised to become independent and move out on their own when they reach adulthood.

The extended family model is often found in collectivist cultures and developing countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as in Hispanic and American Indian cultures. In this model, the extended family – including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – are an intimate part of the familial network.

Whereas individualist cultures prize privacy and independence, with the nuclear family living separately from the extended family, collectivist cultures often share the household across generations. In a multi-generational household, you might find three or more generations cohabitating. Grandparents might live with their adult children and grandchildren.

In some of these households, the eldest son brings his new wife to live with his parents at home. The daughter-in-law submits to the mother-in-law.

“Relatives” unrelated by blood may even play a significant role in the family, with tribal leaders being consultive beings in American Indian families and godparents serving this role in Hispanic families.

Next week, we’ll talk more extensively about familial roles and rites of passage across cultures.

10 Cultural Universals: The Link Between Language & Culture

Last week, in our ten-part series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how geography can influence culture. This week, we’ll take a look at the link between language and culture.

Does our language influence the way we see the world? Or does the way we see the world shape our language?

Research suggests that it’s a little bit of both. Here are just a few examples of how culture and language are bound.

Colors

A study done by Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University professor of psychology and Frontiers in Cultural Psychology editor in chief, highlights how the Russian language distinguishes between light blue and dark blue tones.

And, interestingly, corresponding tests showed that Russians are, in fact, able to distinguish between shades of blue better than non-Russian speakers.

Is this because the language calls them to distinguish between dark and light, or does the language reflect the way the Russian people view color?

Time

In the 1940s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf studied a culture’s concept of time based on language. He found that English-speakers objectify time by placing it in countable chunks – minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.

By conceptualizing time in this way, English-speakers view it as something that can be lost, wasted, or saved.

Those cultures that look at time as a continuous cycle do not speak of it in such terms. The Hopi language – a Native American language spoken in Arizona – is one such culture.

Other ways in which time is viewed differently across cultures: the Aymara language in South America flips time on its axis, considering the past to be in front of them and the future behind. Mandarin, too, considers the past to be above and the future below.

Do these linguistic concepts of time influence the way we live our lives?

Cause & Effect

Stanford’s Caitlin Fausey studied how language can influence eyewitness memory of cause and effect.

Spanish speakers often use passive voice when speaking about an accident that occurred. For instance, if Sam broke a dish, they would be more likely to say “the dish broke” or “the dish was broken,” leaving Sam out of the action, altogether.

English speakers, on the other hand, are more likely to use the active voice, saying, “Sam broke the dish.”

This has been shown to shape how a person from either culture recalls events. English speakers are more likely to recall who broke the dish, while Spanish speakers recall only that it was broken.

This linguistic trait is only in the case of accidental events, not intentional ones, so a Spanish person is just as likely to recall who broke the dish if it was intentional as their English counterparts.

These are just a few of the ways that language shapes culture and/or culture shapes language. And they highlight the importance of studying the language of any culture into which you wish to integrate.