Connect Across Cultures Blog

How To Define The Elusive “Culture”?

The word "culture" is difficult to grasp and hard to define. Culture has become the umbrella term for everything related to human social life.

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

How To Define The Elusive “Culture”?

You see "culture" everywhere; pop culture, mass culture, organisational culture, indigenous culture and much more. Culture has become the umbrella term for everything related to human social life.

The word "culture" is difficult to grasp and hard to define. Some use artefacts, ideologies, power and group membership to explain culture. Many believe that culture is how rules and systems are socially transmitted. A common quote is

...the way we do things around here. John Kotter 1

The word "culture" originated from the Latin word "cultura" or "cultus", which means the "state of being cultivated." Cultivated refers to becoming refined, educated or being "improved" upon.

The all-encompassing concept of "culture" causes much confusion. The cultivation of culture can consist of tangibles and intangibles. Tangible materials such as art, music, cuisines, dance are used to demonstrate and express the intangibles such as superstitions, customs, values and beliefs. It is also perceived as socially transmitted rules and systems. When you try to use one concept to explain everything, it doesn't explain much of anything. And you begin to wonder, what is truly culture?

Everything is nothing, and nothing is everything. Anonymous

Researchers and scholars defined culture in many different ways. Faulkner and colleagues have identified 313 different definitions of culture in their book Redefining Culture 2. It is no surprise that in everyday conversations, culture typically refers to race, ethnicity, religion or nationality.

Does race define culture?

A person's race often comes to mind when talking about culture. Race is the physical or biological characteristics of a person. Skin colour, eye colour, hair type, face shape, height and many other features imply race.

Yet, the research found no significant genetic differences among people. When two randomly selected people are compared, their DNA varies less than 0.1%. This tiny variation triggers the physical differences we see in people. Alan Goodman, a professor of biological anthropology, wrote in his article "Race is real, but it's not genetic3"

For over 300 years, socially-defined notions of 'race' have shaped human lives around the globe—but the category has no biological foundation.

Researchers have known all along that humans are more genetically similar than not. Race has limited biological existence, but the construct has real-world consequences. People categorise, interact, and identify themselves and others based on similarities of physical appearance. Though, is it enough to say that culture comes from our perceived and visible physical differences?

Does ethnicity define culture?

For some, culture is linked to Ethnicity. Ethnicity is used interchangeably with "race" and "culture". Yet, their meanings are not the same.

While race looks at physical differences, ethnicity is linked to a geographic region. Ethnicity is when people identify with people who originate from or are descendants of natives from a geographic area. People from the same region can have either real or presumed commonalities, such as language, religion, heritage, customs and many others. For example, women who wear a sari, speak Hindi and avoids consuming beef may recognise and identify each other as ethnically Indian.

The reality is that people from the same ethnicity may choose to some, all or none of the cultural practices. Cultural practices are learned behaviours, which have no links to our biology. As such, people can choose to display or conceal their ethnic practices.

For example, a British-Chinese might eat dim sum or bubble tea in Chinatown and speak Mandarin. Or may choose to conceal their ethnicity by have dinner at a pub and speak English with a Scottish accent. Since we're able to reveal or conceal our ethnicity, can culture be defined by something else?

Does nationality explain culture?

Large groups of people who originate or migrate to a country will have some form of identification, which is one's nationality. Nationality refers to the legal citizenship of a nation-state. Citizens within a country can share common cultural norms, practices and beliefs.

For example, Thais celebrate Songkran Water Festival, or also known as the Thai New Year, every year on 13th April. People fill up the streets during the sweltering April month and throw and play with water at every passerby. No matter where Thais are in the world, there will surely be a community to celebrate the festivities.

Even though citizens of a nation share common norms, there can be many different cultural groups within a country. For example, South Africa is ethnically and racially diverse, yet the citizens call themselves South Africans. As we begin to see, culture has multiple layers.

Does religion explain culture?

In addition, a person's culture often involves their professed religion. Over 70% of the world's population is affiliated with the 5 major religions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism4.Religion is a belief system and a set of practices related to the commune or worship of a power that is higher than the individual. These belief systems are typically concerned with the nature and purpose of the universe and the creation of humanity.

Religion defines devotional practices, rituals, and ceremonies that remind its devotees of their moral code and conduct. For example, wearing a hijab indicates the person identifies with being Muslim. Or abstaining from beef is the cultural practice of Hinduism.

However, people who identify with a particular religion may follow all, some or none of its practices, beliefs or values. For example, some people identify with Christianity yet have not attended church or participated in religious activities.

Defining Culture is Hard.

Defining culture is challenging. The boundaries of culture are indistinct and unclear. Culture is an unconscious process that lives in the minds of diverse individuals across different contexts. Is it fair to say an American-born Indonesian have the same culture as a China-born Indonesia or a Dutch-born Indonesian? Or does a Muslim in Afghanistan have the same culture as a Muslim in Ethiopia or in Belgium?

Also, culture itself is not static. It is dynamic and ever-changing. What was considered a cultural norm in the past may no longer exist today. For example, in the 70s, bell bottoms and barbeques were trendy. But today, it's skinny jeans and veganism.

To complicate matters, there are variations within a culture too. Within a national culture, there are different groups of people with different cultural practices. In many countries, the older generation's view of the world differs from the younger generation. Because of culture's vague boundaries, ever-changing and varied nature, it is difficult to define.

Why do we need to be clear about Culture?

Culture has become a "catch-all" phrase. Organisations or societies seem to focus on "Culture" as the culprit of issues. Such thinking limits the possibility that problems can originate from other sources. As Abraham Maslow5 once said,

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Without adequate assessment, the solutions proposed or implemented will not effectively solve "cultural" problems. Because it might not be a cultural problem, to begin with! For example, leaders may believe that productivity has not increased due to the "laid-back" culture of the employees. If probed further, the cause of the low productivity might be the outdated software or the mandatory bureaucratic process.

Also, using "culture" as the catch-all phrase does not help clarify the details or the nuances of an issue. When there are no details or clarity around an issue, it is harder to find a solution. Without clarity, saying that "a conflict occurs because of cultural differences" is interpreted as an excuse. In such situations, no one is to be blamed and without a path forward.

How to be clear about Culture?

When you talk about or use the word culture, you need to first define what culture means. Be clear about the scope and what it entails. You can refer to existing definitions to gain some inspiration.

Consider the context of when and how the word is used. "Culture" as you define it will provide clarity to your audience. For example, if you are the leader addressing your employees in a town hall, clearly state whether "culture" refers to your team or organisation.

Also, be specific about the meaning and the associated situation or behaviour. For example, as a leader, you might want to encourage a culture of "empathy" and inspire your employees to treat customers empathetically. Share your definition of a culture of "empathy". Share a story that relates to your meaning and intention. Incorporating relevant stories that demonstrate the culture will make it relatable to your audience. The greater the specificity, the more others can relate to the type of culture you are trying to address.

Culture can be confusing, but it doesn't have to be.

Gaining an understanding of the different definitions of culture is an excellent place to start. With a range of definitions, you can select a definition that suits your goals best.

Besides, remember to consider the time, purpose and audience when using the term. Refining the definition and pairing it with a relevant story will make it relevant to your audience.


  1. Kotter, J. P., & Rathgeber, H. (2016). That’s not how we do it here!: A story about how organizations rise, fall—And can rise again. Portfolio Penguin.
  2. Baldwin, J. R. (Ed.). (2006). Redefining culture: Perspectives across the disciplines. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  3. Race Is Real, But It’s Not Genetic. (2020, March 13). SAPIENS. 
  4. Pew Research Centre. (2015). The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Pew Forum. 
  5. Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. Harper and Row.