13.1 Understanding Culture

Let us begin with this working definition:

Culture consists of the shared beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, values, and assumptions shared by an identified group of people.

In technical writing context, an “identified group of people” could be as identified through prewriting work, as in Chapter 2.1 “Types of Audiences”.

Try this

For deeper meaning, revisit the definition italicized above after you read each of the following five items. As you do, think about these in terms of classroom expectations. Then, think about these in terms of any workplace experiences you have. Are there any difference or similarities? How did you learn these conventions?

As you work through this chapter, remember these five things about culture:

  1. It is learned. Geert Hofstede views culture as consisting of mental programs, calling it softwares of the mind, meaning each person “carries within him or herself patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime.” Similarly, Peter Senge argues that mental models lock individuals and groups into a specific perception about the world. Like a computer, we are programed to act or behave in certain ways. The conscious and unconscious learning we undergo, over time, turns into beliefs that we consider to be valid. We then teach each other that these beliefs are cultural norms, and they are then expressed in our daily lives as behaviors and actions.
  2. It is shared. Although you may think of yourself as an individual, you share beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and assumptions with people who grew up or live in similar cultural backgrounds. It is easier for you to relate to someone who has shared value systems and ways of doing things than someone who does not share the same values. The patterns of culture bind us together and enable us to get along with each other.
  3. It is dynamic. Culture is dynamic and thus complex. Culture is fluid rather than static, which means that culture changes every day, in subtle and tangible ways. Because humans communicate and express their cultural systems in a variety of ways, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what cultural dynamics are at play. It is important to pay attention to the cultural context of a communication to understand the depths of its dynamic properties.
  4. It is systemic. In systems theory, systems are interrelated interconnected parts that create a whole. There are patterns of behavior, deeply rooted structural systems, which are beneath the waterline. What we see at the top of the iceberg are the behaviors; we do not see what contributes to those behaviors. To address the system, one must be able to address the underlining patterns. These patterns, because they are deeply embedded in the system, will take up significant effort, time, and resources. Changes to the system are slow and gradual; visible changes may not appear until months, or even years, later.
  5. It is symbolic. Symbols are both verbal and nonverbal in form within cultural systems, and they have a unique way of linking human beings to each other. Humans create meaning between symbols and what they represent; as a result, different interpretations of a symbol can occur in different cultural contexts.


This chapter was written by Billy Merck, Portland Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0.


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13.1 Understanding Culture by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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