3 Huge Misconceptions About Culture

October 11, 2011

By Rebecca Parrilla

Here are 3 things we’re sure you’ve heard people say with conviction – whether in the break room at work or at dinner parties with your friends. We’re pleased to provide you with some thought-provoking responses…


Culture is a set of values and behaviors that are learned and shared by a group of people who have common experiences and influences.  National culture fits this definition.  However, although national culture influences each of us greatly, it’s only ONE of the many cultures that impact us.  We’re also members of numerous other cultures!  When you think about the people that you share values and behaviors with, and with whom you also have common experiences and influences, you start seeing cultures based on education (what and where you studied), work experience (where you’ve worked, for how long), particular life experiences (e.g., growing up with a single parent, traveling around the world, managing a chronic illness, being married or single, being a parent or not), socio-economic experience (middle class vs. low income upbringing vs. never having to worry about money), or geographic location (what area of the country you grew up, city vs. suburban vs. rural).  Our culture or worldview is also influenced by our gender identity (and all the experiences that come from belonging to a particular gender), our age (i.e., the era when we grew up), our religious faith (or lack thereof), our ethnic background, and our sexual orientation.  Your organization has culture.  New employees in your organization have a culture (compare to the culture of those who have worked at your organization for 20 years).  The Greek Orthodox have a culture.  People who grew up navigating life from a wheelchair have a culture.  If we share similar values and beliefs with a group of people, that is culture.


Cultures exist because a group has found a way to make their lives better.  No culture is inherently worse or better than any other.  Rather, some cultures may have values and behaviors that don’t support success when their environment changes.  Consider, for example, the difficulties faced by the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians in the early 90’s when they became the first republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union.  How do people whose culture was defined by 50 years of experience with closed borders and a centrally planned economy suddenly operate under a system where they are members of a democracy, with open borders, and a market-based economy?  Or, for example, American culture and its faith in independence and taking responsibility for your own choices.  This is very useful when the economic situation allows for ongoing individual success.  What happens, however, when things change, and suddenly the historical belief that “moving back in with your family” is a sign of failure is at odds with the reality of people losing their homes and their jobs, and having no one to turn to?  In addition, most cultures are benevolent and have positive intentions behind any values they instill. (The vast majority of people don’t want to intentionally create conflict or fail!).  It’s our inability to see things wholeheartedly from their perspective that may cause us to judge another culture as cruel, stupid, antiquated, or naïve.


The environment we all live in may be changing (slowly or quickly) impacted by such things as the internet, or YouTube, or Hollywood, or Bollywood, or 15 hour flights that connect Asia to Europe, or pandemics like the flu, or outsourcing, or migration – but the bottom line is that we all still interact with these commonalities based on our cultures.  In the long run, we may begin to share certain values and behaviors, but the French will always have French history and French pride, and the Bolivians will always have Bolivian history and Bolivian pride.  Until such time as we all speak the same language, go to the same schools, share the same history, and have uniform laws, policies, and holidays, we will continue to be unique.