I Had No Idea What Culture Was This Whole Time

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In my ANTH 1120 - Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class this semester, my preconceived notions about culture and its impacts have been completely rearranged in no small part due to my instructor.

Before I started this course, I treated the idea of culture as nothing more than another way to label people and make distinctions between others. Boy, was I wrong!

What my Anthropology instructor sought for us to do (and is still trying to make us do) is to reconsider everything we know about culture and to radically embrace a new way of viewing it. He took issue with the idea that most people understood culture to be any of the following:

  • a government-approved way to categorize people based on their ethnic backgrounds
  • a convenient label for people with intersectional experiences to be used for neat descriptions to others
  • something fixed that stays with a person for their entire lives

I can hear his voice in my head protesting against the above notions:

"Wrong! It's all wrong, people! Don't be taken for fools! Culture is much more nuanced and fascinating than what you've been told to date."

After a bit more progression in the course, I have come to understand the following about culture:

  • Culture can be thought of as a set of beliefs, practices, and symbols that are learned and shared among a group of people
  • Culture is shared in the sense that it is held collectively and transmitted among members of a group or society. Through this internal transmission, it brings people together and creates a sense of belonging and identity.
  • Culture is learned over time. It is not innate or produced biologically; it is acquired through exposure to interconnected elements like beliefs, practices, norms, values, customs, rituals, and material goods.
  • Culture is integrated and cannot be observed in isolation as its many factors play with each other to shape the worldviews and lifestyles of any group of people.
  • Culture influences how individual people see the world around them and helps them to make sense of their reality and experiences, which then form their beliefs and values.
  • Culture never stays the same. As people change over time, so do cultural factors due to exposure to other cultures or through social and technological advancements.
  • Culture is symbolic in that it is communicated through symbols or arbitrary representations that carry common meanings within any given culture. Some examples of symbols include rituals, language, art, and gestures.

Given the much more detailed list above, it is clear that my view on culture has expanded and actually helps me to better appreciate the different ways people show up in my daily life and how I now perceive my interactions.

For what it is worth, having developed and appreciated this new-found understanding of culture has altered my thinking in my day-to-day living.

When I meet new people at work, I used to be quick to judge everyone and dismissive of their experiences. In fact, I rarely truly *listened* when I asked them "How are you? Tell me about yourself." It's shameful, I know.

Now, having gotten more exposure through an academic lens, I find that I take more time to ask better questions about others. Instead of brushing off my conversation partners with a trite response, I find myself pacing myself in our interactions and really inquiring about their motivations.

My most memorable example of this was when I recently found out that my coworker was ethnically Russian.

Before studying cultural anthropology at Langara, I probably would have just said "Oh, you're Russian. That's cool, I guess." and then walked away without a second thought. Now that I have opened my mind to a more nuanced understanding of culture, I found myself having an invigorating conversation with them that lasted almost 15 minutes in front of the coffee machine.

"Oh wow, so you're ethnically Russian! How has that been for you?"

"Were you born here or back in Russia?"

"Did you have any fond memories growing up in your home?"

"Has it been hard for you to hold on to your roots now that you are an adult?"

These are now the kinds of questions I'm pleasantly surprised to be considering when I make small talk with others, and it is in great part due to my having studied more cultural anthropology.