Cultural Background: Definition, Examples & Features

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cultural background examples and definition, explained below

Cultural background refers to a set of beliefs, norms, values, and practices a person has inherited from their cultural group.

This aspect of identity is shaped through language, religion, family customs, history, and geography of the culture you come from (Boyle, 2021).

People are often identified by their culture. This identification stems from shared characteristics, practices, or beliefs with a group of people.

As an example, if you’re from France (the geographic influence), you may speak French (language), enjoy croissants for breakfast (a social custom), and take part in Bastille Day celebrations (historical context).

Cultural Background Definition

Cultural background refers to the set of beliefs, practices, traditions, and values that individuals inherit and learn from the communities, regions, or countries of their ancestry (Daniels et al., 2016). It encompasses various elements like language, religion, cuisine, social habits, and arts, which collectively shape an individual’s personal and communal identity.

We can conceptualize cultural backgrounds along three vectors: shared beliefs, values, and practices,

Firstly, the core of our cultural background often lies in shared beliefs. These beliefs can be spiritual, political, or social (Boyle, 2021).

For example, cultural beliefs provide a sense of belonging and help to guide behaviors. Consider the faith-based dietary restrictions observed by Jewish individuals (Kosher laws) and Muslims (Halal practices). Such norms are integral parts of their cultural backgrounds, shaping day-to-day behaviors.

Secondly, a culture’s values are often passed-on through families and social interactions. Values are ingrained convictions that help us distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad. They are directly linked to our cultural background and shape the way we perceive the world. For instance, people from Japan often value harmony, respect, and hard work, resulting from their cultural teachings, societal norms, and a reverence for tradition (Pethes, 2019).

Thirdly, your cultural background deeply infuses your everyday practices. These may range from meal times, social interactions to education and work ethics. In Spain, for instance, it’s customary to take a “siesta” or a short nap in the afternoon – a practice tied to their cultural background that may seem peculiar to an outsider.

Cultural Background Features

Beyond the above three core features, there are a range of other aspects of cultures that can feed into a shared ‘cultural background’:

1. Cultural Values: These are fundamental beliefs and principles that dictate the behavior within a culture. Values are the societal yardsticks that guide the behaviors and mindset of people within a culture. For instance, in many Native American cultures, harmony with nature is a core value. This means that decisions – from what to eat, how to live, and how to interact with animals and the environment – are all grounded in this fundamental belief.

2. Language: This is a crucial aspect of cultural background and acts as a solidifying factor for communities. For example, Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking province of Canada, has held fast to its linguistic roots despite being surrounded by English-speaking territories. This commitment to language is a concrete representation of their cultural background.

3. Traditional Customs and Rituals: These are set practices and ceremonies fundamental to a culture’s social fabric. Customs can include distinct practices tied to life milestones, religious celebrations, or community events. For example, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexican culture is a ceremony that celebrates deceased loved ones, featuring colorful altars, special food, and lively processions.

4. Dress and Artistic Expression: Clothing styles and artistic traditions often define a culture. For example, in India, wearing sarees, salwar kameez, or kurta-pajamas demonstrates affiliations with the Indian cultural background, while Indigenous Australians’ painting and storytelling traditions reflect their cultural narratives.

5. Food and Cuisine: Every culture has unique culinary traditions, with certain dishes being symbolic of cultural heritage. The Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana, for instance, embody the region’s French, African, and Spanish roots.

6. Education and Literacy: The importance a culture places on education is another defining aspect. In Japan, there’s a great emphasis on academic success, reflecting the cultural value placed on achievement and perseverance.

7. Social Norms: These are the behavioral expectations within a community. In many Middle Eastern cultures, it is customary to greet the eldest person in the room first, signaling respect for their wisdom and age.

8. Role of Family: The structure, role, and significance of family in an individual’s life is markedly shaped by culture. In China, for example, the concept of “filial piety” guides family relationships and obligations, underlining respect for one’s parents.

9. History and Folklore: Histories and folk tales help communicate a culture’s values, heroes, and significant events, providing a deeper understanding of cultural background. For example, the buffalo’s importance in folklore, symbols, and rituals indicate its central role within Native American tribal cultures.

10. Religious Beliefs: Religion, or the lack thereof, plays a significant role in shaping our cultural background. It influences various aspects of our lives, from moral perspectives to daily routines (Fung, Wong & Park, 2018). For example, the Islamic practice of praying five times a day forms a routine that influences the followers’ daily schedule.

11. Music and Dance: These forms of artistic expression reflect the heart and soul of a culture. In Ireland, for instance, the tradition of Celtic music and Irish step dancing has significant cultural importance and is a reflection of Irish heritage.

12. Work Ethic and Business Practices: Every culture has defined norms about work ethics and business etiquette. In the United States, for example, punctuality is stressed in corporate cultures, reflecting the value placed on time and efficiency.

13. Architecture and Planning: The structures a culture builds and the cities it designs are a reflection of its values and lifestyle. In Greece, the presence of ancient amphitheaters and temples like the Parthenon echoes the significance of the arts and deities in ancient Greek culture.

14. Customs Related to Life Milestones: These rituals help organize life and provide a structure for understanding growth, aging, and death. For instance, in Judaism, the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies celebrate adolescents reaching religious maturity.

15. Attitudes Towards Health and Wellness: Each culture has uniquely defined the norms around health, illness, and healing. In some cultures, holistic approaches and traditional medicine practice take precedence over Western medicine. For instance, in Chinese culture, the practice of acupuncture for healing and maintaining health is an intrinsic aspect of their ancestral wisdom.

16. Attitudes to Collectivism: One key way of dividing cultures is by their position on the collectivism vs individualism spectrum. Generally, Asian cultures place greater value on the collective good over the individual, while western cultures emphasize the opposite (Heinke & Louis, 2009).

17. Attitudes to Leadership: Research shows cultures also differ in their beliefs about good leadership (Holt, Bjorklund & Green, 2009). Some cultures, such as Russian culture, tend to embrace a strong social hierarchy and strong leader; whereas western cultures tend to embrace a more democratic leadership model.

Real-Life Examples of Cultural Backgrounds

1. Indian Background: Defined by a tapestry of religions, languages, customs, and cuisines. The Hindu philosophy of karma and dharma influences everyday life, and the celebration of festivals like Diwali signal the prevalence of religious heritage. A diverse culinary spectrum, from the spicy curries of the South to the delectable sweets of the West, underlines India’s multifaceted culture.

2. Mexican Background: A blend of indigenous, Spanish, and other influences, forming a unique cultural identity. This comes alive in traditional dances like the Jarabe Tapatio, holidays like the Day of the Dead, and cuisine that includes dishes like enchiladas and tamales. The Spanish language and Catholic religion also significantly shape Mexican cultural background.

3. Greek Background: The birthplace of Western civilisation, Greek culture is characterized by its historical and intellectual heritage, evident in folk music and dances, Mediterranean cuisine, Orthodox Christianity traditions, and the Greek language’s use.

4. Italian Background: Known for its rich contributions to art, science, music, and gastronomy. Key cultural practices include a love of local produce, the celebration of Christian festivals, and a focus on family life. Notable elements include the Italian language, the popularity of opera, and renowned dishes like pizzas and pastas.

5. Thai Background: The culture of Thailand is deeply influenced by Buddhism. Regular rituals like daily Buddhist prayers, or special festivals like Songkran or Loy Krathong, are a testament to this fact. A distinct element is the far-reaching influence of the monarchy. Traditional Thai dance, music, distinctly flavorful cuisine and language are central to Thai culture.

How Cultural Background Influences Us

Internalizing cultural values is a complex process, principally achieved through socialization and internalization.

Socialization refers to the lifelong process of inheriting and disseminating cultural norms, customs, and ideologies. On the other hand, internalization, a subset of socialization, refers to the process through which an individual accepts a set of norms and values as their own, directly influenced by various agents of socialization like family, education, peer groups, and media.

1. The Role of Socialization

Socialization is the process through which individuals absorb the cultural elements of their society, including its norms, values, customs, and modes of operation (Macionis, 2013).

This process starts from the moment you were born, when your parents or guardians imprinted their behavior patterns, gestures, and attitudes on to you. For example, a child born into an American family will quickly learn to value independence and self-reliance, traits deemed admirable in American society (Witt, 1997).

Similarly, the education system plays a vital role in socialization. Schools, specifically, act as melting pots where values from different cultures amalgamate. Children are exposed to and learn the importance of equality, respect, and mutual cooperation. Let’s take the example of participating in team sports at school. This experience teaches you the importance of teamwork, hard work, and fair play, all central values to many cultures.

2. Absorbing Values through Internalization

Internalization comes into play when the learned ideologies start to convert into our personal belief system, thus becoming an intrinsic part of us (Macionis, 2013).

Family, peer groups, media, and cultural institutions are significant contributors to the internalization process. If you’re from a Greek family, it’s likely that you internalize the value of Filotimo (a love of honor), a cultural value highly revered in Greek culture.

Peers also influence the process of internalization. For example, a teenager may learn and internalize the value of kindness and loyalty by being part of a friend group that upholds these values.

Media is omnipresent and influencers our value systems excessively. By consistently consuming media that glorifies values like honesty and empathy, you may internalize these values over time.

The Importance of Cultural Competence

Understanding cultural backgrounds helps us to be more inclusive in our practices, both in personal and professional life.

We can see the importance of cultural competence in a range of fields, such as:

  • In Education: Teachers need to be aware of cultural backgrounds for two key reasons. Firstly, they need to ensure their classroom is inclusive. This may include using books and teaching materials that feature children from a range of cultural backgrounds in order to ensure all children are welcome and belong in the classroom (Rienties et al., 2013). Secondly, they need to be aware that children of different backgrounds learn in different ways. By being aware of the learning styles of different cultures, the teachers can differentiate instruction to support all children, in an approach called multicultural education.
  • In Healthcare: Healthcare practitioners need to create inclusive healthcare institutions and practices in order to encourage people of minority cultural backgrounds to seek healthcare when needed. As a result, healthcare practitioners such as nurses and doctors are often trained in cultural competence in order to ensure they have the skillset to engage and communicate with their diverse client base.

Conclusion

Understanding people’s cultural backgrounds helps us to be more inclusive. Creating environments that embrace and celebrate a range of cultural backgrounds can help all people in society develop a sense of belonging and agency within their society. Furthermore, it can help us to be aware of the unique needs and lived experiences of a range of cultural groups. For an employer, for example, they might need to be aware of their employees’ religious practices and festivals and help work around that to be sensitive to their cultural traditions.

References

Boyle, M. (2021). Human Geography: An Essential Introduction. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Daniels, P., Bradshaw, M. J., Shaw, D., Sidaway, J., & Hall, T. (2016). An introduction to human geography. Pearson education.

Fung, J., Wong, M. S., & Park, H. (2018). Cultural background and religious beliefs. Handbook of parenting and child development across the lifespan, 469-493.

Heinke, M. S., & Louis, W. R. (2009). Cultural background and individualistic–collectivistic values in relation to similarity, perspective taking, and empathy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology39(11), 2570-2590. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00538.x

Holt, S., Bjorklund, R., & Green, V. (2009). Leadership and Culture: Examining the Relationship between Cultural Background and Leadership Perceptions. Journal of Global Business Issues3(2).

Macionis, J. J. (2013). Sociology. 15th ed. London: Pearson.

Pethes, N. (2019). Cultural memory studies: an introduction. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Rienties, B., Nanclares, N. H., Jindal-Snape, D., & Alcott, P. (2013). The role of cultural background and team divisions in developing social learning relations in the classroom. Journal of Studies in International Education17(4), 332-353. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1028315312463826

Witt, S. D. (1997). Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles. Adolescence32(126), 253.

Chris
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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