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What is Culture?

The Theatre of Culture
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

The term culture is used for a complex of human social interaction and activity. It seems to me the basis of a sense of shared identity is a set of significant experiences in common. That is, for two individuals to think of themselves as part of the same "culture," there must be some common identity of place, language, history, or underlying social tie. I call this the principle of shared experience.

Outside and Inside
When you come into a group from the outside, you are not a part of that group's identity or history, which derives from the common set of shared experiences. You have to learn. You have to learn a part, master it, incorporate it into your personality, in order to become part of that social unit. It does seem unreal, "fakey", unnatural. Yes, but what is "natural"? The part you must learn is natural to the people who live that way daily.

A friend of mine referred to a principle taught by a certain marriage enrichment clinic. "Act like you like your wife, act like you love her," in order to reclaim the love you feel you have lost. This emphasizes the learning and acting. Love is like anything else – the more you practice it, the better you get at it! If you act like it long enough, it becomes the natural way of behaving!

Learning Cultural Identity
Our identity in culture is also learned, practised and attained. Thus we must learn the cultural identity of the new culture. The areas in which we need to learn and practice new parts are the areas in our identity (behavior and speech) perceived as foreign.

The areas in which we remain foreign are the primary areas which limit our acceptableness to the members of that culture. If we wish to relate and communicate, we have to be less obviously foreign.

Observation is your starting point -- watch and learn. How do the members of the new society relate to each other? What hand and body motions are used in various situations? How loud do they speak? How close together do they stand? Where do they look when talking with others, of various ages, relationships and roles? When do they laugh?

How these various aspects of human interaction are organized is integral to what we call culture. They are part of the social culture. As a foreigner, you should learn all this from an insider, one who knows the parts and how to perform his role well. You must learn, practice and master the various critical aspects of the culture.

Real-Life Theatre
You are playing in a real-life theatre, an actor in a real-life drama, where everybody is a star, and the critics are also actors. You as the newcomer are learning the part, and the only way to master it is to practice and master the role.


Original article published as a general article in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, April 1993
This version first written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 25 April 2002
Last edited 24 November 2004

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1993, 2002
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

Email: orville@jenkins.nu saxophone@bigfoot.com
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