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Culture can be defined as a set of meanings or understandings shared by a group of people, a framework, a worldview, or a cognitive map that is used to make sense of the world. Another description of culture is a group's attempts to interpret, give meaning to, and function within shared circumstances. Culture also can be understood as a way of life of a people or society, consisting of norms of behavior, beliefs, values, and traditions. Culture provides us with our fundamental sense of belonging, ways to function within shared circumstances and to fit within society as a whole. Our group identities-- the "we's" that shape us-- influence our experience by determining whether we are relaxed and can speak in the shared language/idioms of others who share the same basic world view and experience, or whether we have to translate ourselves to others who would not understand the way we interpret the world.

Culture is often narrowly defined to include only those differences in worldviews and practices associated with ethnic and racial groups outside the dominant culture. An expanded definition would assume that all of us belong to cultures and subcultures. The duration and strength of our connections with those cultures and subcultures influence the way we make sense of and participate in the world, including use of language, habits of thinking, and patterns of social and interpersonal relationships.

The concept of culture is often best understood when students engage in exercises that illustrate differences across cultures:

  • An in-class exercise on American proverbs uses a handout which lists ten sayings (from sources such as Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac) including "There's no fool like an old fool" and "The early bird gets the worm." Individually and then in pairs/small groups, students identify both the value expressed by the proverb and an alternative to this value in another culture or cultures. Difficulty in coming up with alternative values can be reframed as a consequence of being immersed in U.S. cultural values.
  • An out-of-class assignment is to send students to a local grocery store that primarily serves members of an identifiable racial or ethnic group (Asian or Latino, for example). Before making the assignment, students need to be exposed to some of the ways culture is expressed-through the use of space, nonverbal communications, politeness, and use of resources. Students should go alone or in no more than pairs. After spending about twice as much time in the store as they normally would shopping, students should fill out the Ethnic Grocery Culture Observation sheet.