The Best Definition of Culture I’ve Ever Heard

White backed vulture (Gyps africanus)

 

 

I’m a culture vulture unless you go by definitions.

I suppose that’s the point of this post . . . sometimes definitions are stupid.

cul•ture  vul•ture

a person with an excessive or pretentious interest in the arts.

-The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary

 

Yeah that’s not so much me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I do have an excessive interest in the arts unless you go by definitions.  It’s actually more of an uncultivated attraction.  I once saw a guy on the internet who could play Mozart with his armpit.  That was pretty cool but I don’t get all pretentious about it.

I’m the other kind of culture vulture.  The kind who is excessively and pretentiously captivated by people and what makes them different from the people down the road.  How they talk, what they wear, what they eat and why they eat it.  How they get from point A to point B and what they do when they get there.  Culture fascinates me.  It excites me.  I love circling it from a distance, observing it, studying it, watching it and I love even more getting close, touching it and picking it apart.

The vulture metaphor crumbles a bit because I prefer not to wait until a culture dies and begins rotting before I start picking it apart but still . . . it fits.

The question then is how do you define culture?

I do this thing when I teach about culture that has always unfolded the exact same way.  Until I tried it with fifth graders . . . who blew my mind.

I ask the simple question, “What is culture?” and then we start writing their answers on the white board.  I’ve done it with old people and young people and the answers always vary but follow the same pattern.  One person begins, “the clothes we wear.”  Another one adds to it, “the food we eat.”  And after a few one word answers we think we’ve got it.  Then it starts getting more specific.  “How we cook the food we eat.”  And then again.  “How we get it to our mouths.”

And then it’s on.

One by one everyone in the room tries to one up each other by recognizing some facet of what makes culture culture and within five minutes our whiteboard is full . . . and the point is made . . . culture is everything.  There is no part of our lives not impacted by it.

It’s my schtick.  It always works.  Except once.

Fifth grade class.  International school.  Smugly I set them up.

“What is culture?”

Typical fifth grade response.  80% raised their hands and 3 boys looked at the ground hoping I wouldn’t call on them.  I pointed to the girl in the third row and she, in a very fifth-gradey accent shared with me the absolute best definition of culture I have ever heard.

Keep in mind that far, far wiser vultures than I could ever dream to be have spent their lives defining this word.  They’ve written books and doctoral theses’ on it.  My favorite (up until this moment) had always been something like this:

Culture is an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society.  Culture is the total way of life of particular groups of people.  It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does and makes — its systems, attitudes and feelings.  Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation.

–Robert Kohl’s

The problem with using words to define culture is that the more words you use the more you uncover the fact that you’re nowhere close.  There is always something more and no matter how many white boards you fill up you’ll only discover that you’ve got more discovering to do.

So this girl says, “Culture is . . . um . . . it’s kind of like the uh . . . The personality of the group?”

Boom.  So brilliant.

Let’s don’t ruin it with more words.

Unless you want to comment.  Got a better definition of culture?

 

 

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