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Culture and communication

What is culture?

Culture is how people in a group behave which is influenced by their shared beliefs, values, norms, goals and the environment they are in. Grouping people and attaching meaning to their activities are the observer's mental activity and created by their abstraction and generalisation so different people define and perceive a group and its activity differently. We usually become aware of an element of a culture when we compare it to another group's culture.

When two or more people interact repeatedly they create their own culture. We can think of the culture of a family, a company, a sports team or its fans, a country, a religious or political organisation, a gender, an age group, a race, a generation, etc.

When we do our shopping, go to a restaurant, visit a museum or church, travel on a bus or drive a car, participate in a funeral or wedding, go to the court we usually understand and follow the culture of that activity, situation or institution.

Even in our daily routine lives we move from culture to culture and change our behaviour, communication style, clothes, eating methods, body postures, energy level etc. to fit to the people and environment we are in at the moment.

When we travel to a foreign country we may need to change our language and money to interact with the people there and follow different legal and cultural norms.

Cultural, social context of interactions - social constructs & institutions, symbols, shared beliefs

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Each group of people create their own culture. For larger groups, like countries, it includes the way of communicating (language) and exchanging services, product and work (money). These are examples for social constructs. The basic of a social construct is often symbol systems. A symbol is something that people can sense physically and attach a shared meaning to. The meaning and the underlying things' relationship is totally arbitrary, depends on the culture. Social constructs are often based on symbols and people have shared beliefs and act according to their shared beliefs.

The essence of money is that people believe that they can use that piece of paper, coin or number on the computer hard disk to get products and services. If they do not believe this, the money does not exist. It exists because of the confirmed behavior of others each time a transaction happens.

Some social construct are fortified by social institution that make things appear objectively existing. Political systems, religious organisations, companies, banks, marriage, political elections, sport games, education etc. are all social constructs and institutions that help people believe that they are real so they act accordingly. This social constructs and institutions help us build more and more complex societies and achieve complex interactions, innovation, trade etc. Culture is the unique way that a group of people interact with one other.


Language, social constructs and symbols

What is a symbol?

A symbol is something or an event to which a group of people attaches a shared meaning and it can be sensed (we can see, hear, taste, smell or touch it). For example, a traffic sign, the national hymn (song, music) of a country, the smell of incense burnt in a temple, "holy" water used in churches, a ceremonial or ritualistic dance are symbols.

The meaning aspect of a symbol is arbitrarily created by people and may change in time. The meaning does not have any real life connection to the thing it represents.

More examples for symbols: letters and sounds used in a human or a computer language, music notes, mathematical and chemical symbols, flags, bank notes, trade marks, awards like a cup or certificate, wedding rings, smoke used for signalling, the ringing or vibrating sound of a mobile device.

Symbols are almost always used at group level and serve as tools for communication, interaction or representation of complex ideas in a simple way. However, a person can create his or her private symbol, for example a cinema ticket can represent the first date with a loved one who passed away.

What is a social construct?

A social construct is a functionality that only exists as long as a group of people think and act according to shared beliefs, values and goals.

Money is a social construct. A bank note functions as a tool for exchanging values. As long as people believe that they can exchange that piece of paper for goods and services, it functions as money. If they do not believe it any more and thus do not accept it in exchange for their products and services, it is not money any more. Just a piece of paper.

Here are some more social constructs: a government, police, parliament, court; language, marriage, property and ownership, a football team or a football match, a political or religious organisation, the education and health care system, a birthday party, a funeral, a company, all the jobs, countries, nations, science, art.

Some other social constructs that some people may find difficult to understand or accept: race, gender, family, self-image, personality and diseases.

So a language is a social construct that is created and used by a group and which uses symbols. It is a part of the culture of the group.

Technical terminologies and occupational specialisation

As jobs, professions and branches of sciences are becoming more and more specialised, the communication between these specialised groups of people becomes increasingly difficult.

The industrial revolution, the division of labour and the whole process of occupational differentiation created subcultures and their jargon, lingo and working culture.

We spend years to develop skills to be productive in our chosen fields of expertise. We acquire special knowledge and the vocabulary that comes with it.

Medical professionals and IT specialists, for example, spend years to learn their knowledge and the hundreds or thousands of special terms to be able to understand their fields and communicate with their colleagues. But when these experts have to work with experts from other occupations they have problems. They do not understand each other's work and they often need a third professional, who has enough knowledge in both domains to coordinate their joint projects.

In the above example, if a health care organisation wants to digitalise the medical records of their patients or create a medical expert system that nurses and doctors can use easily, somebody has to coordinate the project and translate and communicate between the involved parties.

Cross-domain knowledge and being competent in multiple scientific, academic or professional domains is a competitive advantage in the marketplace. It requires linguistic, cultural and professional understanding in both areas.

Cultural sensitivity

Some people experiences some aspects of a different culture as primitive, disgusting, stupid, inferior while others may have a positive opinion. Remember, there is no good or bad, right or wrong, negative or positive outside our own minds.

Cultures, people and their behaviour are just different. Of course, we all have our judgements but it is our creation. It is not the property of what we judge. It is our opinion.

Some people never accept this idea because they are not aware of their own minds. They look out of their heads and see all the bad things exist there. They are not able to understand the perception process and that we automatically see the world through our mental models (beliefs), perspectives and values.

The cultural aspect of communication

Your communication will not be effective and will even cause a lot of problems and conflicts for you if you do not understand the culture of the people and the situation when you interact with them.

To develop intercultural skills is your responsibility. We naturally learn how to behave in different groups and situations through our life experiences, observations and feedbacks from people. But you can also learn this by watching movies, reading books and travelling.

Learn about the cultural aspect of communication generally as a theory and learn the nuances of each group's culture to improve your relationship with people.