The Cultural Animal
Cultures are those invisible but pervasive arrangements within every society that tell people how to think and how to live. A culture is an extensively developed system of tradition that bestows personal identity through membership in a group that shares a collective history, language, beliefs and customs — even such small details as a preference for beef over horse meat, for trousers over kilts, or for driving on the left side of the road rather than the right.
It pays to know the rules that drivers are following when you step into a busy street. (So many foreigners in London have been struck by cars as they began crossing a street, but looked the “wrong” way, that directions have been placed at busy intersections telling pedestrians which way to look before crossing.) Cultural learning gives us tools that are necessary for survival in the world that we inhabit — whether we are living in the urban corridors of London or a village in rural Maine. Puppies and kittens can grow up completely apart from others of their kin and turn out fine. Their genes tell them what to do. We are not so well programmed from birth. Because humans have very little innate knowledge about how to get along in the world, we depend on culture to provide a road map for living.
Culture socializes us into a way of life and offers us a total view of the world. Who we are, as individuals, depends importantly on the cultural influences that surround us. The African!Kung are egalitarian; competition is discouraged in that culture, as is individualism. In Taiwan, on the other hand, competitiveness is highly valued and often richly rewarded. Most people in those two cultures share their society’s priorities, and as a result, !Kung and Taiwanese could be on separate planets, considering the sharp divergence in their perspectives about social relations — not because of any differences in human nature, or of personality, but of the cultures that have made their societies so different.
Culture imposes perspectives, and also constraints, that have evolved over a long time period among people who are connected to one another because of social, political and economic relations. They also play a more subtle, if no less prominent, part of our everyday lives. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall points out that one of culture’s functions “is to provide a highly selective screen” between us as individuals “and the outside world. In its many forms, culture therefore designates what we pay attention to and what we ignore.”1
The presence of cultural influences means that who we are depends on more than just our own personalities and human nature. Culture interacts with the core attributes of human nature and personality in a relationship that Geert Hofstede characterizes as fitting the shape of a pyramid. To the extent that we humans are alike, it is because we share basic features of human nature. If a belief or a behavior is inconsistent with human nature, it is unlikely to be very prominent in society.
But in some ways we are very different from others as well. Our individual personalities lead us all into patterns of self-expression that are truly unique. Our “mental programs” are ours alone. We do not share them with anyone else — at least, in all of their details.2
Between the human natures that account for the similarities among all people and the personalities that make us all different from any other person are the cultures that we share with groups of people who have quite a lot in common with us. People from a particular culture have enough of the same histories and life experiences to have acquired perspectives and approaches that have been shaped by their past and their surroundings. These ways of living and modes of thinking are passed from generation to generation by parents, peers, the educational systems of a culture, and through innumerable other points of exposure to elements of the cultures in which we were born and live.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out that a culture is not simply something that is “added on, so to speak, to a finished or virtually finished animal.” Rather, it is a central ingredient “in the production of that animal itself.” This means for Geertz that such a depiction as Hofstede’s pyramid is somewhat misleading, since in actuality, “there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture.” Why? Because culture, body and brain interact to such a great degree that, over time, each has contributed importantly to “the progress of the other.”3 Thus, Geertz concludes, “We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture.”4 As psychologist Merlin Donald puts it, human culture is “a complete survival strategy.”5
The study of culture is valuable, then, for two obvious reasons. First, to know yourself, you need to get below the surface of your culture and understand something of how it operates. This is because what is inside your culture is a great deal more responsible for the way you are, and how you think, than what is inside your head. Second, the study of culture allows us to view the world outside our own fishbowl — thus deepening our understanding of why people in other places, who approach the world with a different set of cultural blinders from ours, act and think differently from us. Learning the “nuts and bolts” of cultural processes is good for international understanding. In a globalizing economy, it is also good for business.