What is culture?

A helpful definition I could come across is:

“The sum of attitudes, customs and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted through language, material objects, ritual, institutions and art, from one generation to the next.”


So in, other words, it is much more than the clothes people wear or the food they eat. It is how a certain group of people instinctively think and behave. It is so ingrained in them that it becomes a part of who they are. Rather like a fish surrounded by water, our particular culture is so much a part of us we can hardly recognise it is there. It is displayed outwardly through behaviour, symbols and systems.

One of my favourite authors, Tim Keller helpfully gives a working definition of culture as a ‘collective heart’ – ” a set of commanding commitments held and shared by a community of people…. it is the source of so many ….. deep aspirations, unspoken fears and inner conflicts….. It (shapes) their daily work, their romantic and family relationships, their attitudes toward sex, money, and power.”

Growing up in between Western and Asian culture this was a big issue for me (you can see the story of my spiritual journey here). I never felt I belonged in England (reinforced by my peers at school who would talk of India being ‘your country’) and then going to India I would not feel  a part of those who I met there. At the time I spoke very basic Hindi and was always recognised as an outsider. It was a deeply ingrained issue for me – apparently I am told I would ask my mother to scrub me hard with soap so I would appear whiter!

Through my spiritual awakening I learnt that culture, while comforting and reassuring, is really secondary to what is most important in life. More important than culture is having a sense of belonging. Yes we do get a lot of our sense of belonging from our culture, but if we can transcend our culture and find internal anchors to hold onto then we can find greater security in what is a rapidly changing world.

Ultimately the only constant in the universe that does not change is God. The more secure I can be in my relationship with Him the more I can adapt, I think, to the changes of culture around me.

Now I find myself something of a hybrid – with the desire to enjoy the best of all cultures, and wanting to learn from what is the most helpful and edifying.

On a more mundane level I still find myself instinctively drawn to Indian vegetarian food as my favourite dishes (what I was brought up with – my mother’s cooking!) and I still love Hindi music (where my earliest memories lie), but I can also enjoy a whole variety of other tastes and talents.

On an organisational level, the late Peter Drucker has a famous quote that says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” By that I think he means no matter what the great plans and ideas we have for ourselves, our family or our company or organisation, the overall way of thinking, communicating and working that is ingrained in us will have the final say on what actually happens on the ground.
That is why it is so important to think through and get an outside perspective on how we think and behave.

How about you?
How do you view culture?
What are some of the questions about culture you would like to ask and explore?