A group of Arab oil workers sent to Texas for training found American teaching methods impersonal. Several Japanese workers at a U.S. manufacturing plant had to learn how to put courtesy aside and interrupt conversations when there was trouble . Executives o f a Swiss based multinational couldn't understand why its American managers demanded more autonomy than their European counterparts.
Jose Carlos Villates, a business manager for animal health products at American Cyanamid Co., also had a problem with office protocol. Back in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where he was raised, business people would begin meetings with relaxed chitchat. At the company s headquarters in Wayne, NJ, though, he says he picks up signals orbody language that Americans find such sociability time wasting. But even after 15 months in the U.S., Mr. Villates feels uncomfortable plunging abruptly into business. "It strikes me as cold blooded," he says.
Most people think that culture is manners, food, dress, arts and crafts, says Clifford Clarke, president of IRI International, a Redwood City, CA, consulting company. They don t realize that how you motivate a guy is culturally determined. Every managerial task is culturally determined. [Bennett, 1986, p. 33]
Even a definition of culture depends on culture. In the German, Scandinavian, and Slavic language groups, the word "culture" tends to mean a particular way of life, whether of a people, a time period, or a group. But in Italian and French, the word refers more to art, learning, and a general process of human development (Williams, 1976a, p. 81). Both meanings exist today as the word is used in English. It is helpful to distinguish so-called high culture (classical music, opera, ballet, art, literature, and so forth) from all processes and products of human activity. High culture is associated with class distinctions and is sometimes put down with the affected pronunciation "culchah" (Williams, 1976). We will use the term culture in its more general social sense to mean the customs of a group or a society.
Culture refers to all the symbolic and socially learned aspects of human society. Material culture includes things, technology, and the arts. Nonmaterial culture includes language and other symbols, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, and customs. Culture has a certain durability. This does not mean it is unchanging; culture changes constantly. Indeed, it is like a living, breathing entity. Only the rate of change varies from one society to another. But there is an important historical dimension to it that cannot be ignored. Culture has a certain coherence, although it may contain contradictions. Ruth Benedict (1934), in her famous book Patterns of Culture, referred to "cultural configurations."
When people encounter a new culture, they can see, hear, feel, and otherwise sense the existence of a culture that differs from their own. When such changes are very dramatic, they say they experience "culture shock" from the jolt of so many unfamiliar activities. It takes time to adjust to the different tempo, social styles, food, and activities. Even experienced anthropologists who have made numerous trips to study other cultures report that they feel culture shock when they return home. In the United States, visitors from the North to the South or vice versa also notice differences in tempo, politeness, language, customs, and diet. Northerners may get impatient with the apparent slowness of southern service; southerners may be shocked by what seems like northern rudeness. We tend to take culture for granted until we are confronted with differences or changes.
Although culture and society are intimately bound together, it is possible to separate them, at least conceptually. Society consists of people and their social organizations. Culture is all the socially learned behaviors, beliefs, feelings, and values the members of a group or society experience. It includes customs and language. It affects how people interact, the meanings they place on different interactions, and how interactions are organized. The members of a society are like the actors in a play, and culture is like the script they follow (or do not follow in some cases).
The capacity to create, transmit, and modify culture dramatically distinguishes humans from animals. Animals appear to depend on instincts, imitative social learning, or trial and error for solving their survival problems. Humans rely much more on cultural prescriptions. If culture distinguishes humans from animals, it is important to consider the similarities between us and animals as well as the unique features of human life.
Which biological traits do we share with other animals and which represent unique features? We are born and we die. Unlike humans, most animals appear to be unaware of the fate that awaits them. Humanslike our closest relatives, the great apesare a sociable species, preferring to live in groups rather than alone. Primate research suggests that socially learned behavior helps apes survive (DeVore, 1965). Like apes, we interact with one another often and enjoy being affectionate. We have unusually large brains, which have grown dramatically in size during the last 3 million years of evolution (Wilson, 1975a). The increasing size of the brain has meant ever-increasing intelligence for members of the species, leading to increasingly complex culture and technology and less reliance on instincts. Many insects and animals inherit instincts for behaving in certain ways. Instincts are genetically determined patterns of behavior triggered by certain conditions and over which animals have little or no control. Beavers, for example, have an instinctual response to cut down trees with their teeth. If, however, they cut through the trunk of a tree and it does not fall because its branches are caught in the branches of other trees, the beavers will start chewing all over again. Their instincts tell them to chew until the tree falls. For humans, culture and reasoning greatly outweigh instinctual bases for behavior.
We have very useful hands that are strong, precise, and skillful. Having an opposing thumb means that we can grasp, grip, and manipulate in ways few other species can. This allows us to make and then use all kinds of tools and implements.
Human feet, legs, and backs have evolved in such a way that we can walk and run easily in an upright position, something most animals are unable to do for any length of time. Human females can have sexual intercourse any time during the year, rather than being limited to a particular period of female "heat" or estrus. This year-round potential for sexual activity increases the chances that humans will form relatively lasting social-sexual relationships. These relationships are particularly important in view of the long period of human infant dependency. Human infants need care from others for a number of years to meet their physical needs and to learn their culture. Finally, along with our primate forebears, we are very talkative.
The combination of large brains and useful hands has enabled humans to adapt to widely varying geographical locations. Humans live more widely and more densely than any other mammal species on earth. The inventions of our brains, hands, and tongues can be passed along to our descendants. Each generation, in turn, can adapt or modify existing cultural forms and continue the never-ending process of cultural creation.
All human societies appear to share certain cultural features, although the particular forms they take differ dramatically. These are called cultural universals and include the use of language and other symbols, the existence of norms and values, and the tension between ethnocentrism (the attitude that one's own culture is superior to all others) and cultural relativism (the view that the customs and ideas of a society must be viewed within the context of that society).
Common Cultural Elements
After comparing 220 societies, anthropologist George Murdock identified cultural elements found in all of them. These universal elements include age grading, athletic sports, cooking, dancing, folklore, hospitality, hygiene, joking, mourning, personal names, and soul concepts. Although these cultural features exist in all the societies studied, their particular content varied widely. Every culture, for example, has symbols and language, but there are many different symbolic meanings and languages.
More than any other animal, humans fill the physical and social world with symbolic meanings. A symbol is any object or sign that produces a shared social response. A piece of rock, an animal, the moon, a cross, a glance at another person, and a piece of paper with the word "dollar" on it are all imbued with various meanings and sometimes mythical or magical qualities. The symbolic meaning placed upon something may be separated from its physical aspects.
Symbols share several characteristics. First, they are socially developed. The sun may symbolize strength to you or to me, but unless that meaning is shared with others it will not become a significant symbol. So, one feature of symbols is that they are socially shared. Black symbolizes mourning for many Americans, but New Guinea women paint themselves white to show grief.
Second, symbols may have more than one meaning. A stack of hundred-dollar bills can symbolize wealth, happiness, greed, materialism, and a host of other things, depending on the meanings people attribute to it. So all meanings are not equally shared, and a variety of symbols can arise from an object like a stack of bills. Third, there is a certain amount of cultural arbitrariness in the meanings assigned to particular symbols, and symbols may differ in time and place. The skirt, for instance, has traditionally symbolized femininity in Western cultures, although Scottish men proudly wear kilts without being considered feminine. Many women wear pants and are considered no less feminine, and the meaning of long hair on men has varied widely.
One of the features of a highly diverse society such as ours is that people share different symbolic universes. That is, the symbolic meaning your group agrees on for something may not be shared by other groups. Wearing jeans may symbolize that someone is unpretentious, unconcerned with displaying material success, desirous of comfort, unhappy doing laundry, and a host of other meanings you could supply. Designer jeans, however, introduced an element of status competition into casual dressing. In our society there is less and less common meaning attached to cultural symbols. It used to be that driving a large car was a sign of success. But is it still? If you asked 20 different people, I think you would get 20 different responses. The size of one's car no longer means the same thing to everyone in our society.
Of all the symbols humans use, language is the most highly developed. Language consists of spoken or written symbols combined into a system and governed by rules. It enables us to share with others our ideas, thoughts, experiences, discoveries, fears, plans, and desires. Written language extends our capacity to communicate through time and space. Without language, it would be difficult to transmit culture, and culture would develop exceedingly slowly. Language is a critical key to understanding any culture and any society. It is the secret to reaching beyond ourselves, which is the heart of our social existence. A person may be a superb athlete, mechanic, or cook, but teaching or talking about that skill requires language. Otherwise, learning can only come from imitating actions.
Yet the importance of language goes even further. Two American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, argue that language shapes the way people think and the way they view reality. If this is the case, it helps to explain why both the civil rights movement and the women's movement have been concerned about the use of language. Contrast the words "boy" and ''man'' with respect to what they say about a person's role and stature in society. Similarly, use of the words "girl" and "woman" has been important to the women's movement. Not only are roles and statuses reflected in language, but language seems to shape a person's identity and sense of self. Language concepts can raise mental fences around the conceptions of self available to us and to others. The concept of "old" as applied to people in our society, for example, has generally implied that "old" people do not want or need sex, despite recent research showing that they desire and enjoy sexual relations of all kinds (Starr and Weiner, 1980). And by excluding sex as part of the identity of an "old" person, older people and the people around them may not be able to address their sexual needs.
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language characteristics influence thought has been extensively criticized. Some argue that thought and culture shape language. Others hold that the iron grip of language over all our thought categories has not been demonstrated. However, people tend to see natural objects, such as colors, in the terms language provides. An artist may have words for 14 shades of red and "see" them accordingly, whereas the Jale of New Guinea name and "see" the world only in terms of warm and cold color categories. Even social perceptions seem to be shaped by language, as research on teachers' expectations for "gifted" and "slow" learners suggests. In short, language does in some ways shape how we see the world and makes it difficult, although not impossible, to experience the world in alternative ways. Becoming aware of how language may limit U.S. is the first step toward breaking free of those limits.
Language also provides clues to what a culture considers important. Farmers have many words to describe various types of soil, reflecting its importance to them. Our culture has numerous slang words for money (including "bread," "dough," "jack," "simoleons," "kale," "greenbacks," "bucks," "bones," "wad," "shekels," and "do-re-mi"), suggesting the importance of money in our culture.
Language also identifies the members of a group. If you "know the language," whether of football, electronics, or human physiology, you are a long way toward being "in" the group. If you do not know the language, you probably will not be accepted as part of the inner group and also may not know what is going on. (This applies to sociology as well. You need to learn enough sociological "lingo" to pass the course you are taking.) Finally, language can obscure as well as clarify. For example, the phrase "nuclear events" refers to accidents in nuclear power plants but plays down their importance and removes them from the realm of human responsibility.
Suppose you were taking a seminar with 20 other students and you circulated a list with each person's name and telephone number on it. Then assume that several members of the seminar began receiving obscene phone calls, apparently from someone in the class. How would you feel if you received a call? Probably you would feel outraged. Your feelings would be intensified because the caller would be violating a social norm. Norms refer to shared rules about acceptable and unacceptable social behavior. In this case, the phone numbers were shared to advance the work of the seminar, not to aid obscene phone callers.
All societies have norms, although their content differs from one society to the next. In rural West Africa today, if a stranger knocks on the door in the middle of the night, the norm is to invite the person in and offer food and a place to sleep (if only on the floor). In New York this would not be the normative response to a midnight knock from a stranger. Norms provide guidelines about what is "acceptable" or appropriate behavior in a given situation. They go beyond suggesting what people might do, however, in that they also contain an aspect of what they ought to do. Quite often they come to believe that they should behave in a certain way. Probably most of us feel that we ought to avoid talking out loud to ourselves in a crowded public place.
Norms apply to more than behavior, however. Even emotions are saddled and bridled by norms, as Hochschild (1983) points out. We think to ourselves, "I ought to feel grateful for all they have done for me," or "I shouldn't have felt so angry," suggesting that we are comparing our feelings to a normative standard. These examples suggest that norms, like other features of culture, slip into people's minds in subtle ways.
We may be unaware of how strongly norms weave together the fabric of social life. In an effort to unearth these normative threads, Harold Garfinkel had his students set out to disrupt the usual flow of social life. He asked them to do such things as go home for dinner with their parents and act as though they were strangers visiting there for the first time: "Yes, thank you, Mrs. Jones, I would like to have some more lima beans." "Mr. Jones, how is your bowling team doing?" It took very little of this "bizarre" behavior for the parents to react: "What's wrong with you? Are you sick? Are you playing games with us? Why are you behaving this way?" Some became rather heated.
In another experiment, researchers Stanley Milgram and John Sabini (1978) asked students to ride a crowded bus or subway during rush hour when there were no seats left. They were to approach a stranger and ask if they could please have his or her seat. This was such counternormative behavior that many students found they could not do it. They simply felt "too awkward." It was easier for them to ask for the seat when they could give a reason: "I feel dizzy," or "I just got out of the hospital." Other passengers were more likely to give up their seats when presented with a "legitimate" reason. Otherwise, you can imagine the reactions the students received. Part of their discomfort in asking undoubtedly arose from anticipating those reactions. And that discomfort is a clue to the existence of a social norm.
Four kinds of norms can be identified, depending on the degree of conformity that is required. Folkways require less conformity; they are social customs to which people generally conform although they feel little pressure to do so. We are expected to wear matching socks (if we wear socks), to wear clothes without holes in them, to speak when introduced to someone, to shake hands when someone offers a hand, and to eat at least some of what is offered U.S. when we are guests at dinner. Violations of folkways do not usually arouse moral outrage. People who do not accept the social customs of the group may be considered odd or sloppy, but they are not likely to be arrested for their behavior.
Mores, on the other hand, are strongly held social norms. Their violation arouses a sense of moral outrage. A naked baby on an American beach may be violating a folkway (to some), but a naked man on anything except a nude beach is violating mores and indeed is breaking the law in most communities. Violating mores excites strong public reaction and usually involves legal sanctions as well, since most are written into formal law. Laws are norms that have been formally enacted by a political body. Preliterate societies do not usually have formal laws or lawyers, but they have strongly followed norms nevertheless. Laws may be enforced by the police, military, or some other state organization.
A taboo is a strongly prohibited social practice. It is the strongest form of social norm. The most nearly universal rule in all known human cultures is the incest taboo-- the prohibition of sexual intercourse between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, and sometimes other relatives as well. The wide appearance of this taboo suggests that it may have developed early in human evolution. Just because something is taboo, however, does not mean it never happens. Indeed, there is growing evidence that the incest taboo is violated fairly frequently (although no definitive statistics exist on how often incest occurs). The taboo nature of incest is evident in the fact that people do not practice it openly. Moreover, they are often embarrassed or ashamed to discuss what happened to them. The existence of such feelings signals the presence of a taboo behavior.
Social norms are supported by sanctions. A sanction is a reward or penalty directed at desired or undesired behavior. Negative sanctions include disapproving looks, negative gossip, social shunning, imprisonment, and the electric chair. Positive sanctions include prizes such as the Nobel award, praise, applause, esteem, financial rewards, and smiles. The effectiveness of a sanction depends on how the receiver feels about it and about the people giving it. Electrocution is fairly universal in its negative impact, whereas prizes may mean little or a great deal to the people winning them.
The type of sanction helps us to distinguish between folkways and mores. Violations of folkways usually receive only informal social sanctions, such as stares, snide remarks, or other signs of disapproval. Mores are usually backed up with formal sanctions. Taboos vary as to whether or not they have formal sanctions. Norms may be socially sanctioned, as in the case of norms about appropriate dress, or legally sanctioned, as in the ease of norms against beating up people and stealing their money. Norms are rooted social values.
Norms are concrete applications of values in everyday life. Values are strongly held general ideas people share about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable. Values are more general than norms in that they do not prescribe specific behaviors for concrete situations. In fact, the same values may support a number of different-- or even competing-- norms. For example, parents who value their families may be torn between working hard in their occupations and spending more time at home. Both behaviors may be normative expressions of the underlying value of commitment to their families. Examples of values generally held in our society include freedom, justice, and individualism. The normative counterparts to these more general values are freedom of speech, equal justice before the law, and the right to privacy. Religious or humanistic values helped concentration camp prisoners to resist their captors despite the best efforts of their captors to break down their social solidarity (Pawelczynska, 1979).
A society's values are important to understand because they influence the content of both norms and laws. How can we tell what we, our neighbors, or other societies value? Sociologist Robin Williams (1960) suggests a number of indicators of the choices people make that may point to their underlying values. Patterns of money expenditure, directions of interest (in literature, movies, music, and other arts), and direct statements all provide clues to what individuals, groups, or societies value. Some families, for example, spend their extra money on cars, boats, furniture, or clothing, whereas others may spend it on books, education, and concerts. These choices reflect different sets of cultural values. To these can be added time allocation (how much time people spend on various activities) as another indicator of how highly they value the activities or the goals those activities represent. Value statements may reflect what people see as ideal, whereas time or money expenditures may be better indicators of their real values.
In any given situation more than one value may be operating. A desire for efficiency in business clashes with a growing value on humanizing the work setting. You may value friendship and also value getting your schoolwork done. Often these values compete for one's time and attention. Many societies experience tension and even conflict over competing values. Developing societies often experience conflict over preserving valued traditions and modernizing. Industrialized societies face conflicts between the values of equality and rewarding merit.