Culture... what is it?

One of the services I offer is Cultural Competency training. So ... what is culture? Let me start by sharing the dictionary definition of this elusive concept. Merriam-Webster defines culture as:

  1. the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations

  2. the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group;

  3. the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time <popular culture> <southern culture>

  4. the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line>

  5. the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic <studying the effect of computers on print culture> <changing the culture of materialism will take time — Peggy O'Mara>

Our challenge in looking at our own culture is that we often are in a sense, blind to it... can't see the forest for the trees. In Canada, the garden-variety Canadian doesn't think that Canadians HAVE a culture.

Many people think of culture as something that other groups have... something exotic... out of the ordinary.

The irony is that each and every social, ethnic, organisational, religious or any other group has some sort of culture. Culture operates at every level in our lives - it is the lens through which we view the world and which informs every interaction we have with people, places and things. Culture sits at the essence of who we are and how we relate to the world. Isn't it mind-boggling that something so very quintessential can be so difficult for us to grasp?

The first step to understanding our own culture(s) - most of us exist in more than one culture at a time - is to begin to question the things we take as 'given' - our social scripts, guides to behaviour or assumptions about others.

Each member of the group pictured to the left participates in numerous cultures; Canadian, Indigenous, Military and likely more. They each express their culture in different ways. Some aspects of the cultures they are part of may even be unknown to them.

To be culturally competent requires that you understand YOUR culture, to do more than to exchange one set of misguided assumptions about other cultures for a list of assumptions that seem more authoritative. When you understand your own culture, with all its nuances and influences, you may begin to be able to create culturally safe spaces for those whose culture is different from your own. What is a culturally safe space you ask... well, that will be revealed in the next blog... stay tuned!

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