10 Cultural Universals Wrap-Up

Over these past few months, we’ve talked about the 10 Cultural Universals.

These are the ten themes that every culture has in common.

Let’s run through these themes one more time and sum up what we’ve covered.

Geography

From the geography of the Inca culture and how it impacts all other aspects of life in the Andean Mountains.

Language

To the way words and language can color our world – like it does for Russian culture in shades of blue.

Family

From the varied family structures in collectivist and individualist cultures.

Food, Clothing, Transport, Shelter

To the dignity of food with Anthony Bourdain.

From fashion, its trends, and social movements that advance culture.

To how transportation can shape a city and its embrace of greener alternatives.

From how shelters tell stories of culture to the stories told by the nomadic homes of Mongolian yurts.

Values, Beliefs, Rituals

From how we become who we are through the values we consume.

To how cultural beliefs can impact everything from gender roles to healthcare to education.

From how rituals can make death a celebration.

Economics

To how cultural values can influence economic output and shape government for better or worse.

Education

From how educators serve as the front-line in disseminating our culture’s values to our children.

Politics

To how “collapsing events” in politics can inform those very values and provide context to the evolution of our culture.

Technology

From how social media movements are being used as a vehicle of change across the world.

Cultural Expression

To how art, literature, dance, music, sport, and other forms of creative expression have always been used as vehicles of sharing and understanding both the familiar and the foreign.

What’s So Beautiful About These Universals?

The fact that each and every culture around the world has these themes in common.

Regional surroundings help define culture, language and cultural expression communicate to others who we are, politics provide culture structure.

Although from East to West, individuals, societies, governments, and their values are different – very different – we all share these ten aspects of culture in common.

And sharing commonalities is as beautiful a thing as appreciating our differences.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dangers of assuming sameness. Stay tuned.

10 Cultural Universals: Cultural Expression

When talking about culture, this is the 10 Cultural Universals category that first jumps to mind.

Art, music, literature, sport, and any other vivid representation of culture falls under the category of cultural expression.

As one of the loudest and most dynamic parts of culture, expression is the paint pallet that brings the picture to life.

Art.

blog53-2Where would Mexican muralism be without “the big three” – David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco?

The Mexican Revolution spurred artworks with a political and social message. Beginning in the 1920s, the Mexican muralism movement lasted more than fifty years.

Artworks were often commissioned by the government, itself, and were mainly large and colorful storytelling pieces, celebrating Mexico’s rich history, coupled with the moral degradation of imperialism, dictatorships, and war.

This form of cultural expression illustrated the importance of history and politics to the Mexican people in this era of change. The bold colors and lines of their pieces also showcased the artistic and cultural aesthetic.

Music.blog53-1Flamenco music and dance in Spain is one of the liveliest representations of an already lively culture.

The dance, which is one full of controlled movement, intense facial expression, and dramatic costume, experienced its golden age from 1869 to 1910 but is still very popular today.

Along with evocative singing, the Spanish guitar, hand drums, and the Flamenco clap, known as Palmas, the experience of Spanish music and dance draws the emotions of the performers and the audience into one powerful crescendo.

Literature.

blog53-4Nikolai Gogol. Anton Chekhov. Leo Tolstoy. Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The Russian soul is best expressed in the works of its greatest writers.

Literature is a canvas of cultural self-reflection. Many of the greatest authors of any given time or place know just how to record and express what their culture is in that moment…and across the ages, as well.

Dostoevsky said the Russian soul was a dark place, and Alexei K. Tolstoy captured that place in one beautiful quote:

“It is sad, yet joyful, on a silent summer’s night, in a voiceless wood, to hear a Russian song. Here we find unlimited sadness without hope. Here, also is unconquerable strength and the unalterable stamp of Fate; here, also is iron predestination, one of the primitive foundations of the Russian national identity, through which much can be explained which seemed inexplicable in Russian life.”

The great literary masters are able to articulate the very essence of what it’s like to be Russian.

And if that isn’t the power of cultural expression in a nutshell, then I don’t know what is.

Creative expression is the living and breathing spirit of a culture. It breathes life into society, explodes onto the canvas, and serves as a monumental representation of who we are as one.

10 Cultural Universals: Technology

Technology.

It accelerates and informs our culture.

Sometimes, it evolves slowly.

Sometimes, it evolves at the speed of light.

Sometimes, it is light.

When we talk about technological development, we’re not talking only about technology as we know it today. And by that, I mean computers, the Internet, and everything associated with the word “tech”.

We’re talking about the evolution of aspects of daily life across time, which can manifest in many technological forms.

What forms?

Technological Development

Technology involves the evolution of the way we, as humans, live and interact with the world.

How we make ends meet.

How we get from here to there.

How we share our lives and record history.

Some examples of technological evolution:

  • Transportation: the wheel->carts->roads->road networks->bicycles->trains->automobiles->planes.
  • Communication: oral tradition->written word->telegrams->telephones->email->text->instant message->social media->videocalling.
  • Industry: the invention of steam power->the use of steel and iron->development in coal industry->advances in engineering->development in chemical industry.

These are just three areas of our technological evolution that have changed cultures all over the world.

How Do Technologies Change Culture?

As Charlie Gilkey put so eloquently in his article, “Technology and Culture Influence Each Other”:

“As much as technology is created from the fabric of our culture, technology also creates the fabric of our culture.”

Let’s take one of our examples from above to illustrate this.

Communication

Just imagine how different life was way back when the only means of communication was oral tradition.

Instead of instantly sharing one’s thoughts with all the world, Bob had to travel to George’s house in order to deliver a message.

Communication, therefore, took much longer, the audience was limited, it relied on memory, and it likely relied on more forethought too, because, due to these limitations, it was infinitely more important that Bob conveyed his message correctly the first time.

Then, there was written word. It could be conveyed and delivered to the recipient with more directness and accuracy.

Next, telegrams. Then, telephones.

When telephones were invented, you could call up your mom and ask her when you had to be home. And now, you can even see her face when you do so.

Communication has taken on new, more instant forms – from emails to texts to IMs to Tweets. These more instant means of communication can rapidly impact culture. In fact, they’ve created tsunami waves in the form of social media movements.

For instance, as described in “Fashion, Tradition & Cultural Clothing Movements,” a social media movement in Iran has and is changing the status quo when it comes to women wearing hijab in public.

Such movements are so impactful that they are altering the tides of history.

We’ll talk more about that next week.

10 Cultural Universals: How North Korean Politics Shape Culture

Imagine you live in a culture whose politics are totalitarian, whose leader has a cult of personality.

Imagine you have to triple-lock a door and put a blanket over windows so that no one catches you watching the latest Stephen Seagall movie.

Imagine you have a buddy system at school to ensure that you’re never alone.

Or that a cellphone is considered a luxury, but it only grants you access to the state-run media, not to the world wide web.

Imagine how you would be forced to live, if a toe out of line meant a stint at a “re-education center” for you and your family. You’d certainly follow the rules, enthusiastically praise your gracious leader and, with enough political and cultural conditioning, you may even believe the propaganda fed to you.

This is North Korea.

Cult of Personality

Last week, in our series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how collapsing events might lead to a change in cultural values.

For North Korea, a series of collapsing events culminated in the Korean War and the armistice signed in July of 1953.

The result is today’s North Korea, where totalitarianism and “the Great Leader’s” cult of personality reigns supreme.

This personality cult is rooted in the past, beginning in 1948, when Kim Il-sung took power, and growing with each and every Kim

While democratic leadership has its own brand of the “cult,” the Kim family takes their “right to lead” leaps and bounds beyond normalcy.

Kim Jong Un, for instance, is believed to be the grandson of a god-king. He is called the “father of the people” – that title, accompanied by a song by an all-girl rock band, entitled “We Call Him Father.”

And what happens when a citizen doesn’t praise him as such?

Penalties exist for those who do not respect the regime properly.

And for those who outright criticize them?

Well, there really are re-education centers and much worse to silence dissent.

The Results?

Mina Yoon, who defected from North Korea in 2010, said that the totalitarian system in the country limits individual pastimes.

“The idea of ‘free time’ is not really common. Then, even if you do have free time, there aren’t many things to enjoy anyway.” – Mina Yoon

American journalist Suki Kim who taught English at an all-boys school in North Korea said  that the terror is palpable there.

“The level of fear is unimaginable. It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.” – American journalist Suki Kim

This is how politics can shape culture to the extreme. Next week, we’ll talk about how technology comes into play.

10 Cultural Universals: Education

What role do educators play in society?

Teaching reading, writing, arithmetic. Sure.

But they teach our children and young adults other things too.

In many ways, educators are charged with teaching our youth about the basic tenets of our culture.

Socialization

We talked a lot about primary socialization in earlier blog posts.

According to sociologyguide, education has both tangible and intangible results. Specific skills are learned, but so is knowledge, judgement and wisdom.

“Education has as one of its fundamental goals the imparting of culture from generation to generation. Culture is a growing whole. There can be no break in the continuity of culture.” – sociologyguide

Education begins at home and continues through schooling. It is here and there that a culture’s heritage is passed on through social institutions, and it’s transmitted this was through each and every society, making it one of the 10 Cultural Universals.

Education is delivered through many forms:

  • Curriculum
  • Relationships (teacher-student, etc.)
  • Extra-curricular activities
  • Communication of values and skills – i.e., discipline, teamwork, cooperation, respect, duty, etc.

These taught skills, both tangible and intangible, are designed to enable children to understand their culture and to help them integrate into the world.

Cultural Education Clash

Different cultures see the world differently. This isn’t in error. It’s how culture is perpetuated.

Matthew Lynch, Ed.D., talks about that in his article, “Examining the Impact of Culture on Academic Performance.” He writes:

“A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.”

Lynch describes Richard Nisbett’s studies on the difference between Eastern and Western thought.

In The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, Nisbett found that the Chinese and Japanese view the world in a holistic way, seeing objects with respect to their relationship with other objects, while Americans view the world in distinct parts or classes of objects, defined by rules.

In this way, learning, in and of itself, also differs across cultures. There are a number of theories as to why and how, some of which are discussed in Lynch’s article. But the one we’ll outline here is the cultural difference theory.

The Cultural Difference Theory

This theory suggests that children growing up in different cultures likely learn in different ways.

You might take our example from Primary Socialization V: Conflict Resolution.

The conflict between Ahmed, Khalid, and Ann illustrates that learning and education in some areas of the world is a communal effort, while in other areas, study is independently geared and self-driven.

This is why, when working in a cross-cultural environment, one must always be aware of different traditions of learning and approaches to education.

If you’re aware of how individuals in a culture have been taught to learn, you will be better able to teach; to work with and/or manage them successfully.

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.