Why is Culture Important?

  Nature and nurture

A few years ago, I had a conversation with The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis#, a Philadelphia-based think tank that decodes how people determine value in products, concepts, and ideas.

    Working with companies like Disney, they study how apparently unique decisions follow certain shared subconscious patterns. Culture defines what things “should” look like in order to have meaning. And when it comes to receiving, remembering, and assigning value, vision trumps all other senses.

    They say[1], “the impact of culture on how we see and think of the world around us follows a logical and measurable sequence:

  • Our senses detect sensation.
  • The brain translates sensation into perception.
  • Perception is shaped by culture in context.
  • Culture is a complex adaptive system.
  • Context is a bordered system.
  • All systems can be decoded, modeled, explained, and understood.”

    What we can decode, model, and explain, we can understand… and improve or change, if we want to do it.

    On a more pragmatic level, the 7 cultural assumptions that drive American choice, according to Jayme Boyle, Chief Analyst are:

    1. Individuals should determine their own destiny
    2. Individuals should control their social and physical environment
    3. Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion
    4. Actions should be judged in a moral light (philanthropy, for example)
    5. We should have as many choices as possible
    6. Anything can and should be improved
    7. The future should be better than the present

    Culture is a synthesis of things, and the undercurrent of how people connect with the world in a specific place. It’s part of the infrastructure of civilization and we’ll see a little later here how it changes.

    But now a question on how it spreads. How do we learn about what’s considered good, something to aspire to in our world? Culture is transmitted by values. The cultural assumptions above come from a simple set of values Americans absorb in their environment:

  • equality
  • individuality
  • work hard, play hard = success
  • the sky is the limit
  • freedom
  • mobility
  • safety
  • competition
  • efficiency

    People behave in a manner that signals these things are important to them. So even when you travel to the U.S., or move here, you absorb them rapidly.

    Learning about these values can help us create context around behaviors, to see why people do what they do. It’s useful to learn how the current environment and circumstances shape assumptions, and how people use assumptions to shape future events.

    “People don’t buy products, they buy values,” says The Center for Cultural Analysis, “and that simple equation, Mobility = Freedom exerts an irresistible subconscious pull on the American consumer that may not be equally compelling in other cultures.”

    To become better at separating myth from reality, we need to be aware of one more thing. It’s not the quality of the product itself that drives adoption, but it’s the perception of quality. This is how we get into paying for experiences or products we believe are genuine ¾ because they sound good. How good for you, how close to expectations… only you can decide.

    Now let’s take a look at European values for the sake of comparison. In no particular order:

  • appreciation of aesthetics
  • intellectualism
  • socialism
  • tradition
  • leisure
  • sensuality
  • family and friendship

    A very different set.

    While using generalizations for the whole continent doesn’t do each country justice, it serves the purpose of providing a high-level comparison set to show how assumptions about what’s true in one place can put at risk our experience in a different country.

    The drive to be social is much stronger in Europe than in the U.S., where individualism has been elevated to a god-like feature. Based on historical precedent, there are more traditions in Europe than the huge holiday (Thanksgiving) in the U.S. along with a few political celebrations. Contrast mobility in the U.S. – as in “I use the mobile phone to pursue my freedom and equality” – to leisure and access to family and friends in Europe – where sharing location and experience is driven by a stronger pull to relate socially.

Why would culture be such a strong force in an age of globalization?

    While it’s advantageous, even necessary, to have a global mindset (and knowledge and competence to match it) in order to navigate modern complexity and commerce, cultural values are important to decode why people behave the way they do.

    Emotion drives behavior, and values are the bedrock of emotional expression. We're all in a symbiotic relationship both with our nature and our environment, they each influence and change the other. It's one uncomplicated explanation as to why sometimes “we like things that are bad for us#,” as Faris says.

    Culture also manifests in products. It’s up to us to decide if the values it promotes are real – embedded in the product, crafted that way, or just perceived a veneer, an add on, part of a clever marketing campaign. Is an item truly artisanal or mass produced and labeled as such?

    For examples of how cultural values play out in products, consider Burger King’s “have it your way,” and Nike’s “Just do it.” They both appeal to American individuality, ability to customize, freedom, comfort, and a sense of success. For a counter example from Europe, Italy’s coffee ads emphasize time with family and friends.

    Many other brands use cultural values to enhance the perceived value of their product in different countries. Ford, for example, creates versions of its cars for different markets, based on the perceived values of that market. Some cars are sold as American classics, for example the Mustang. A company web site’s home page in Europe would feature a smaller car to appeal to buyers who have limited space vs. an SUV for “sky is the limit” in the U.S.

    Culture influences products, but it also influences how we make decisions. We put culture into practice in the selection of the knowledge and information we choose to pay attention to and how we signal it. Our personal culture comes through in our beliefs, and also in the arts, morals, laws, customs and any other capabilities and habits. In this sense, culture informs us and forms us at the same time. It’s embedded in the principles behind why we do what we do.

    If you do nothing else, becoming more aware of how much your culture influences who you are and your motivation should be very helpful. To the argument that opting out or being indifferent are options – yes, they are, and they count as action in making the world we get.


[1] Source: http://www.culturalanalysis.com/why-culture.html

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