#38Write: How Do You Define “Culture”?

#38Write—my [new-ish] global writing initiative—is a monthly series of online writing adventure workshops for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world. Each writing adventure focuses on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life (for example, writing kick-butt descriptions), and during each 38-hour adventure, writers connect with me and #38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag and a group Pinterest board. In the July workshop, we had 16 writers in 9 countries. It’s pretty darn awesome!

In the July #38Write workshop (#38Write | Structure), I asked writers to define culture without using a dictionary, thesaurus, or other reference. I wanted writers to arrive at their own organic definitions of a term that gets tossed around a lot. For many of the writers, I heard the task proved to be much tougher than they originally anticipated. Here’s what some of them came up with; I love these!

(drum roll…)

“An ever-widening pool of thoughts, ideas, dreams and nightmares turned into staggering physical objects, sounds and words that touch us in various ways and give us a taste of the incredible intricacy of the human mind and soul and perhaps, a peek at immortality.” [Maria, U.K.]

 * * *

“Culture is the armor we put on to protect us from the judgment of others while wielding our own. It is the cloak of conformity protecting us from the marginalization brought on by our two greatest faults. Individuality and free will.

“It is corporate speak, one plus one really does equal three. It is the thought police and politics of fear and division. Red vs. Blue, Rich vs. Poor, if you aren’t with us, you’re against us. It is feeding at the media’s buffet of consumption and disposable consumerism. A hedonistic diet that invites us to insert ourselves into the minutia of others while avoiding empathy.

“It is the simmering pot we find ourselves in, awaiting the boil.” [Sean, U.S.]

* * *

“Culture is created by people to include, alienate, frustrate, bamboozle and inspire others. It is indescribable in entirety—spanning language, music, architecture, food, drink, dress, attitude, smiling, grimacing. It enables or disables relationships, both personal and geographical. Culture is something to be drunk and savoured, to taste. It can never be completely digested, as it is ever-changing in itself and your perception of it. It is the stuff of (your) humanity.” [Michelle, France]

* * *

“Culture is a mother. She tells you bedtime stories, explains who you are, why you’re special, what to believe, defines your choices and boundaries. You let go of her skirt and feel lost, listless, unknown. You build your own stories, day by day. You become a mother.” [Jennifer, S. Korea]

 * * *

“I think of culture as the unspoken rules of play. It’s the inside information that gets us a seat at the cool kid’s table in the lunch room. Over time, culture is formed from the whos, whats, whens, and whys that matter most—life’s decoder ring.” [Laura, U.S]

 * * *

“Culture is what you believe you are. It is the sum of what you have learned by being where and when you have been. It is what you have absorbed from those around you. It is what you believe about what you have been told about who you are.

“Culture is those things you do not see. It is the cloud that surrounds you. The fluffy white cloud you can’t see through, the gray cloud that dims your vision, the scattered wispy clouds that throw barely perceptible shadows. Your cloud is the sum of your family’s miasma, your town’s history, and your country’s storyline. It is the mist that surrounds you and every one is unique.

“When your various clouds cross, or your clouds cross those of others, flashing lights, loud booms, and tumult result.” [Kelly, Turkey]

* * *

“Culture is always tied to place. It’s showing a place the way locals see it in a deeper way, insider knowledge versus the way a tourist sees it skimming only the surface.

“It considers the quality of life of its residents, the little guys who make up the fabric of the city’s neighborhoods. People like you and me. Sense of place is an intangible weave of culture (stories, art, memories, beliefs histories) and the tangible physical components of an area: its rivers, woods, monuments, architectural styles, its pathways and its views. Place also embraces our personal relationships and those who think like us, kindred spirits. This attachment to place, this sense of feeling, is derived from the natural environment, but it also includes a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape.” [Michelle, U.S.]

* * *

“Culture is a society’s folksong of beauty and deformity. It clasps nuances, peculiarities, obscenities and is the overt and hidden essence fine-tuned by breathing in the scenic and ugly pail of humanity. Clouded by human thoughts, its evolution is sorely dependent on random and expected perspective as also geographical thresholds.” [Meena, China]

* * *

“Culture is the derived from the group(s) we are born into and it shapes the way we think, what we say and how we behave in any given situation.” [Diane, U.S.]

* * *

“Imagine a sandwich. Think of a country as that sandwich. Picture the delicious filling that smothers the sandwich’s core and oozes into its every fibre; that binds the sandwich and delivers unique smells, sights, tastes and textures. If a sandwich is a place, then the filling is its culture.” [Russell, Australia]


What do you think, readers? How do you define culture?


If you’re interested in signing up for future #38Write workshops, you can either:

  • send me an email
  • subscribe to the Writerhead blog so that you’ll get the workshop announcement conveniently in your email inbox
  • check back in a week or so for the August workshop announcement (“Classes” page)


9 Responses to #38Write: How Do You Define “Culture”?

  1. I loved them all but especially liked the definition of culture as a mother that we one day become.

  2. Thanks, Karrie!

    I’m glad we had to do this on our own, without looking anything up. I think that forced me to really think about my own experience; thus we have all these really interesting perspectives on culture.

    But the more I read them the more I also see similarities: many of us tried to capture a sense of heterogeneity in terms of where culture resides. Several of us spoke of culture defining inclusion and exclusion. And I also saw a theme of tension: when cultures collide or within a culture.

    So fascinating!

  3. Thanks for sharing the definitions Kristin – all of them were fascinating – what I now understand based on different perspectives is that Culture can be limiting or liberating.

  4. Most welcome, Meena!

    One question for all of you (and readers, too): do you think that your definition of “culture” changes over time? Would you have given the same definition five years ago, 10 years ago?

  5. I think my definition of culture has changed. As little as 5 years ago, I viewed it as somewhere else. As some who strives to write about a sense of place, my awareness broadened and deepened, became bone deep over skin deep. Learning how a landscape shapes us and divides has made me hyper attuned to local cultural viewpoints and mindsets in Niagara Falls, NY. http://www.niagaraheritage.org for info about the landscape issue.

    Great class, Kristin, the only one I have found on writing about a sense of place.

  6. Culture to me is no longer heritage alone because as one travels to different places, you add on to the culture pot. You make it your own by adding and nurturing new elements. You fashion it in your favorite colors and see only what you want to see. Nonetheless my view of culture has expanded. It is now a global curry.

  7. Living in another culture for five years has changed my perception of what culture is and how deeply it influences us. I think experiencing other cultures allows you to see more clearly how many assumptions we make without even knowing we’re making them. Until you have spent some time living inside a place where you are truly foreign I don’t think you can understand that.

    It has made me more cautious about defining universal truths, more flexible in dealing with what others see as truth, and more sensitive in reading the underlying narrative of assumptions of people in general.