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: 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: 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.

The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what topics can you expect the discussion to encompass?

These 10 cultural universals are a start.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to consider geography when discussing culture. The landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region all impacts a culture’s evolution.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying any social group some insight into what’s important to them (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the group’s written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members undergo. Labor division across genders is also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival form the skeletal structure of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine and clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, finance, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to societal development and quality of life, making a group’s economy a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society, from rule of law to the enforcement of these laws, form the group’s hierarchies, structures, and most important institutions. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – Technology available to a culture – tools, weapons, digital technology, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way the culture operates.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category that first springs to mind when the word, “culture,” is used. That’s because art, music, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is the most bright and vivid rendering of the culture’s essence, its spirit. Creative expression brings culture to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.