A cultural trait is a distinct aspect of a cultural group. Most cultures have unique traits that distinguish and define the culture. Examples include the culture’s fashion, accent, rituals, and architecture.
Cultural traits are categorized into two types:
- Material (physical) – For example, objects or artifacts.
- Non-material – They can also be not physical (non-material) such as ideas, values, or organizations like education systems.
Using cultural traits in various combinations, people build traditions and a common sense of cultural identity.
The term ‘cultural traits’ is commonly used in sociology and human geography courses.
Cultural Traits Definition
Cultural traits are distinguishing elements or components that make up a culture. They result from human learning and sharing. Internal dynamics of culture and external influence can change cultural traits.
We can consider almost everything a cultural trait. Whatever belongs to a culture and whatever is the product of the culture can be a cultural trait.
In each culture, there are thousands of cultural traits, which are significant for identity formation (Fabietti, 2016).
These traits, coming together in a certain way, give a culture its distinctive structure.
Yet, cultural traits are flexible. One particular trait in one culture can be appropriated and expressed differently in another culture (such as through the process of glocalization).
We can group each of the traits that distinguish one culture from another into broad categories shared by all cultures. These are basic elements in the daily lives of people everywhere (Payne & Gay, 2007).
Production of various tools, for example, is common to all cultures. The type of tool created, however, differs according to social, economic, and geophysical circumstances.
People develop cultural traits socially. Over time, people transfer cultural traits from one culture to another through various forms of social contact. That is how cultural traits become diffused. Using and combining traits, people create various traditions.
Quick Shortlist of Cultural Traits
- Language – A culture is often built upon a common language form and structure.
- Accent – Some cultures that share language with other cultures nonetheless have distinguishable accents.
- Common history – Generally, cultural groups tell stories of their common histories and founding myths.
- Traditions – Shared traditions can include anything from holidays to annual sporting events.
- Standards of beauty – An interesting example here is the Chinese focus on petite feet as something that his highly beautiful.
- Types of recreation – This can include motorcycle riding, drinking, hiking, dancing, and so on. Dominant recreation pursuits can differ from culture to culture, but also within cultures.
- Rituals – A ritual is a set of prescribed activities that has a religious/cultural significance to a cultural group, folk culture, or subculture.
- Music – This changes not only from culture to culture, but generation to generation.
- Architecture – Travel to Greece to see Doric and Ionic architecture, or Thailand to see Pagoda-style buildings.
- Games and sports – A good example of this is Crokinole – an Eastern Canadian game that is beloved there, but is barely known about outside of the culture.
- Common cultural values and principles – The values and principles of a culture are often based on religious texts or longstanding traditions.
- Fashion – I recently traveled to Indonesia where the respectable thing to wear for men was a sarong.
- Norms – All cultures have cultural norms that dictate acceptable and unacceptable behaviors within the cultural group.
- Gender norms – A subset of the above point is gender norms. The more we look at cultures around the world, the more we realize how much variation there is in gender construction across cultures.
- Taboos – Taboos are things that are shocking to discuss or participate in. For example, in some Aboriginal Australian cultures, it is taboo to say the name of the dead.
- Learning style – Different cultures have different approaches to learning. For example, Barbara Rogoff found that Indigenous South American tribes train their children through ‘cognitive apprenticeships’
- Religions – A culture may centralize its religion and the religious values as a common cultural trait.
- Offerings – Many religions give offerings to their gods, such as the Balinese tradition of creating daily incense offerings called ‘canang sari‘.
- Dance – When I traveled to Colombia in my early 20s, my Colombian friends laughed at our western dance style – they would go out and dance the tango!
Cultural Traits Examples
Language is a set of meaningful symbols. It is central to communication within a culture and, therefore, also to any society’s culture.
As an essential cultural trait, learning a language requires cultural transmission. Language plays a key role in the transmission of human culture. Language preserves and advances culture. Cultures transmit information through language from one generation to the next.
English language, for example, is a cultural trait shared by the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand etc. It is also the central cultural trait that separates cultures from one another.
Games exist in all cultures. They are representations of cultural activities. Peter Brueghel’s famous painting “Children’s Games” is a good summary.
Games serve as a learning environment for advanced social skills. They contribute to cognitive development in children.
Children learn skills through games and contribute to their societies as adults by making use of them. Game playing is important to learn and internalize the traditions and norms of a culture, as well.
According to recent research, different cultures play distinct games. Thus, we may observe more cooperative games in cultures that value cooperation and more competitive games in cultures that value competition (Leisterer-Peoples et al., 2021).
Therefore, we can suggest that the games are cultural traits and reflect the characteristics of a culture.
Traditions are cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions. Every culture has various traditions. Some may make sense in other cultures, but others would have no meaning in another cultural context.
Celebrations are commonplace, but cultures create different activities for celebrating important events. Wedding celebrations, for example, and the related rituals, costumes, and gender roles vary across cultures.
Respecting the elderly is frequent in some cultures, though it is not universal. Hospitality is also typical. Yet, its intensity and the associated gestures and offers differ. Salutation as a message of peace and friendliness is very common, but it takes various forms.
A ritual is a series of various activities, gestures, and words. There is often the use of specific objects supporting the activity. People perform rituals in a certain order, following certain rules.
A long list of examples include Kit Mikayi shrine rituals, Alasita rituals in Bolivia, Nawrouz in many regions in the Middle East and Central Asia, tugging rituals and games in East Asia, the Vimbuza healing dance ritual in Malawi, and others. UNESCO has a long list of such elements of intangible cultural heritage.
At a general level, there are rituals that we can observe across cultures. Courtship rituals or rite of passage, for example, exist almost everywhere, but with differing culture-specific gestures, activities, and symbolic meanings.
Music is a universal language that connects people. Yet, music is a powerful expression and symbol of cultures and cultural identity. It reflects the historical, social, and political conditions of culture.
Reggae and Jazz music, for example, reflect the rich history of people with origins in Africa, which includes colonialism, oppression, marginalization, and injustice. The musical products in these genres are also acts of resistance, hope, and love.
Rebetiko is another type of music that is a product of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the early 20th century. Predominantly in Greek, the Rebetiko songs are expressions of the experiences of the working-class populations.
Cultural traits are distinguishing elements or components that make a (national) culture. They result from human learning and sharing. Cultural traits are characteristics of human conduct and can also refer to objects that emerge from this conduct.
In each culture, there are thousands of cultural traits, which are significant for identity formation. Cultural traits can be material (physical) or non-material (non-physical). These traits, coming together in a certain way, give a culture its distinctive structure.
Cultural traits are flexible. Internal dynamics of culture and external influence can change cultural traits. One particular trait in one culture can be appropriated and expressed differently in another culture.
Fabietti, U. E. (2016). Cultural traits and identity. In Fabrizio Panebianco & Emanuele Serrelli (Eds.), Understanding Cultural Traits.Eds. (pp. 43-59). Springer.
Leisterer-Peoples, S. M. et al. (2021). Games and enculturation: A cross-cultural analysis of cooperative goal structures in Austronesian games. Plos One, 16 (11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0259746.
Marsh, M. & Alagona, P. (2020). AP Human Geography: with 2 Practice Tests. Los Angeles: Barron’s.
Payne, H., & Gay, S. (1997). Exploring cultural universals. Journal of Geography, 96 (4), 220-223. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221349708978790.
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.