What is this thing called ‘culture’?

As much of our work involves people – understanding who they are, what they do (and are likely to do in the future), what makes them tick – culture should be our first port of call.

We at Truth see culture as the connections, influences and embedded codes that make us who and what we are (as individuals and as collectives). Culture is the basis for meanings to be created and it enables these meanings to be shared. Culture is the codes, ‘rules’ and norms that underpin the thoughts, actions and outcomes of everyday life. 

Asking some simple questions can help make the meanings of this ‘thing called culture’ clearer. For example, why do certain colours become meaningful in highly specific and context-dependent ways? Why, for example, does red mean danger and black luxury in certain situations? And why does red mean sensuality and black mean death in other contexts? How do these definitions and differences happen? We could also ask questions about the legacies and histories and the stories and narratives that define culture.

Culture can be complex, multi-faceted, difficult to pinpoint at times and both residual and slow to change as well as in a constant state of flux. Culture is often layered and sometimes conflicting; there can be a struggle between different viewpoints, for example, views on the ideal body size/shape are highly cultural. Culture can seem daunting, particularly when we have the option of simply asking people what they think. Why bother with anything more complex when there are easier routes? 

Culture operates at levels that we rarely engage with as people going about our everyday lives. Culture wraps itself around us; a meshwork of influences and shared meanings. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once used the example of riding a bike to illustrate a similar point; we ‘know’ how to ride a bike but most of us know nothing or very little of the physics and neuroscience of bike riding. In a sense, culture is like the bike - we just ‘ride’ it without introspection.

If we aren’t properly plugged into culture, we will miss the deeper truths, the changes that take place and the nuances that exist. Engaging with culture is important but not simple. We have to reflect on what culture is, what ‘it’ does as well as our current limitations in terms of how we see the world. 

Culture is never a given; we always have to explore, assess and evaluate the influences on everyday lives in order to get the answers that make a difference. Culture is everywhere but we need to know where and how to look. We need to be able to find clues, to look for and follow cultural threads in and through a diverse range of sources. 

Culture can be elusive and tends to do its work quietly and at a subconscious level. It lives in the stories we tell and the ways that we tell those stories. Culture permeates the rhythms and rituals that punctuate our lives. Culture is the force behind the symbols that we hold dear, whether religion, fashion, tech, books or furniture.

Culture is the nervous system of the lives we lead.