Culture or Cocaine? Despite your choice, there’s no way you aren’t high on culture. You might be a “young, dumb, broke high school kid” or a “9 to 5” employee, a freelancer, YouTuber, or anybody, we are all smoking this air. Only our cultural air differs with every geographical boundary.
It might not feel Cannabis like, and instead of standing before an elevator for 2 hrs thinking it’s been 5 minutes, an Indian wedding couple high on cultural air will be standing on a stage taking photographs with every family member for 3 hrs wishing it were 5 minutes. It’s a ritual, isn’t it? It can be such an obstacle to remove this 1 tradition that has come alive, which is not even exactly a part of Indian traditions. I mean it’s so difficult saying “You know what? Let’s skip this part after 1 photograph with family.”
But why drill on Indian culture only? Every culture has a way to set the table. More fascinating is that every culture has a reason for the way they set the table, or maybe not. Logic cannot explain phenomena that involve human’s beliefs. Thousands of years ago, humans began making things convenient. And we built systems, categories, mobile phones, haircuts, philosophy, and broccoli with countless other things. One among those was culture. And if there were 7 wonders of human society, culture would definitely be one of them. Meanwhile, religion, and politics, would be the other two. Many things were useful, while many were useless or harmful and hence discarded.
Most of the time the human brain is not thinking straight. It is rather thinking the way it is programmed to think. Programed by who? Programed by your environment and habits that you see and perform. Many self-growth books discuss the power of building good habits that eventually benefit you tremendously over the long run due to the compounding effect of little growth. It is conversely true for harmful beliefs and habits. That is the voluntary programming of your brain into acting or thinking a particular way. There is however countless involuntary programming fixed into our minds. The red traffic light is a signal to stop. And then subtly red also strongly becomes the color for danger signs, for “no” signboards, for indicating something is wrong or discarded.
Automated Thinking with Culture
Very similarly, culture impacts us. So much as the law of a country might be more liberal than the thinking of many individuals in the same country. A law can be passed that stands for equal opportunities for all sections of society, but the people with the biases will stay that way and find more subtle means of still not providing the opportunities to the sections of people they dislike. I do not say that this is a part of any culture because hatred is generally not part of the cultural doctrines passed down. But undoubtedly it is a part of the superficial culture.
Nobody was born knowing that there are “groups” of people instead of “diverse” people, but they learned it from their surroundings, maybe at home, at school, or in their society. Most of the beliefs we follow till death are the beliefs not originated but implanted in our heads since early ages.
Under The Umbrella Of Culture
Culture invites on its table a discussion on progress, freedom, totalitarianism, and human psychology w.r.t. it. While anthropologists would explain culture as “a way of life for entire society”, so different societies shall have different forms of life. But the form of life is itself a collection of ideas, norms, beliefs, and practices. Ironically definition is not sufficient to define culture for what it is. You can define your culture with all specifications, and so can your neighbor. But your idea of your culture will never be a mirror image of your neighbor’s. It, however, will be a reflection, somewhat distorted but more or less similar.
If I may say so, a particular culture is somewhat a vague idea of some ethics you need to follow based on your origin. And as good and evil coexist in every society, it coexists in every culture too. Considering the subjectivity of right and wrong, we haven’t done a remarkable job in separating evil from good. Hence, the slightest change in a norm-based on your preference can challenge the belief of an entire group that thinks otherwise of the same culture you belong to. Culture is a big system. System robs us of freedom, hence every act of individualistic freedom is a rebellion towards the whole, but an act of conscious freedom. The freedom to think.
Resistance To Cultural Change
Have you ever considered why is there so much resistance to a tiny change you prefer in your way of living by the people who haven’t chosen to live that way? Why are we resisting a better world? Because we are scared and most of the things cannot be clearly understood by a large group of people if it is better or worse. If there was as much freedom of choice you wouldn’t have to think twice before setting your table in another country’s way of dressing into westerns for your traditional event, or marrying the Korean way even if you were a Parsi. “I belong to this culture, hence I must do it this way is the norm.”
In an ideal world where culture flows freely with no group having to protect norms, choices would be easy.
But in a world where division and politics exist, diversified culture is a USP for nations in generating tourism, influencing the masses with political agendas, and taking pride in themselves for having something unique, call it outright love for affirmation, let alone familiarity, inclusion, sense of security in a “home” group, etc. Moreover, culture is a group phenomenon. One person cannot protect it, a group has to. But one person can definitely challenge it and no doubt the group will fight to drag you back inside their umbrella.
It is very similar to human psychology because it is built on numerous minds put together after all. Like a human reacts angrily when you touch upon a subject of his insecurity, so does a culture. And this makes any changes, good or bad a very difficult process. However, to begin a new culture altogether is easy.
Case Studies of Cultural Changes by Marketing
The Breakfast Fad
When Kellogg's cereals started a new culture of breakfast in America, the message conveyed was not "Kellogg's Cereals! like, share and subscribe for daily breakfast" but it was that freaking first meal of your day can either make or break your health. The pioneers of the American cereal industry were the “religious health gurus” as called by The Guardian, James Caleb Jackson, and Harvey Kellogg.
They both played around with the then-American cultural scenarios, associating healthy eating religious morality, and the effective meal for a productive day. It was around the 1940s and as the women started to enter the workforce the guilt of not being around for their kids to take good care of them was commercialized. Turns out packaged cereals were nutritious food that every mother should be feeding their kids when they were always in a time crunch.
When De Beers started the culture of gifting diamond rings they invented the diamond for what it was going to be henceforth the world across. They led “diamond invention”—the “creation of the idea that diamonds are rare and valuable, and are essential signs of esteem.” Hence a new culture began. They also portrayed “ A diamond is forever” so that people wouldn’t resell the bought diamonds. Reason? It is incredibly hard to resell diamonds and it causes fluctuation in the cost of diamonds in the market. And dear darling, I hate to break it to you, a diamond is not forever. “Even though diamonds can in fact be shattered, chipped, discolored, or incinerated to ash, the concept of eternity perfectly captured the magical qualities that the advertising agency wanted to attribute to diamonds,” Epstein the investigating journalist wrote.
What am I trying to state here with both these marketing accomplishments?
Establishing New Culture
Anything, mind me (and be bothered) anything that is not intricately a part of a culture can be begun as a new culture quite easily. Provided you have a perfectly hidden agenda, a strong/emotional selling point to distract people, and any vague association you can make with the existing culture of your voters... Oh sorry, I meant customers.
You can inject sentiments into people by garnering support for one idea based on the existing cultural idea. Is that manipulation? I called it a branch of politics. But never mind me. What do I know!
Have you ever experienced trauma? The incidents that shaped your life and your behavior, particularly insecurities? Like a "human" (tryna avoid saying "man"), culture has its traumas. Wars would be a senile example but a very important example. The reformation of the country post-war defined the American culture as its liberal society attempting its best to close the gap between different groups, be it income, gender, or color-based. The pride that every American takes in their liberty because the formation of their society is sewed with that thread.
Enough! Let's Have Food
America and India are drastically different worlds when it comes to cuisine.
America is known for its fast-food culture, while every Indian home cooks food investing hours into it on daily basis. It is a popularly accepted fact but nobody asks why it is so. This rich food culture in India has come at a huge cost. It's merely been at the most two decades since Indian women have gained the opportunity to be a part of the working class on a sufficient level. Yet most of the mothers in India are housewives, just like it has been for centuries. One of the major tasks for the housewives is, cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The ladies pulled it off for so many generations that now Indians are hooked on having a base-to-end prepared meal.
The habit is strongly built, that now for the homes with working women, a house-help is hired to look over the cooking of food as well. Because that's one segment we cannot do without. (For my global readers, you're right. I'm Indian.)
The concept I initially wanted to discuss was the onion model of culture, but what I want to discuss is bigger than a model. No wonder one needs to prepare the field intently for a thorough understanding of the harvest that culture produces. For instance, freedom of speech is promised in the constitution of 150 countries out of 250 countries yet none of us even have the freedom of thought.
The onion model is an analogy to the layers of culture. Gerard Henrik Hofstede chose onion because of its layers, one after another, within all of which resides the core.
For anyone to reach the core of any culture, it is a tedious process of scratching the layers in order to understand them and get past those layers only to get to the inner layers. Getting to the core is time and effort-taking while keeping an open mind and patience.
Nuances or Symbols
On the outermost layer are the symbols like the holy symbol of Swastik in India, the gesture of bowing down in Japan out of respect to greet, thank and apologise. Bengalis have this typical thing of not saying “I’m leaving”, they rather say “aaschi”, which when roughly translated means “I’ll be back”. This has led to another saying in one of the most popular events of West Bengal, the Durga (godess) pujo (worship). It’s a 10-day event, and at the end when it is time for the Goddess to leave, the farewell is bid rather by saying “Aasche bochor aabar hobe” meaning “the next year again, the festival (for worship and joy) will come”.
Invisible Cultural Practices
America’s coffee, Britain’s earl grey, India’s Chai, and Japan’s Ocha are nothing but the practices that the masses have undertaken within their geographical boundaries, making it a part of the nation’s culture. But there is more to the mere beverages.
Why America and coffee are a perfect match? The answer lies in the work culture of America where people love to work and live to work. There is something addictive they find in accomplishing, hence, no wonder people are always on their toes, up and running.
Why Brits and the Earl Grey tea? This again has to do with the air of royalty, class, and elegance that Brits have always breathed into and believed to imbibe within themselves.
If you’ve read Ikigai or even if not, even a little idea of the Japanese lifestyle would tell you the affinity towards healthy living. Early Dinner, food cooked with bare minimum spice, the importance levied to cleanliness, hygiene, and physical work. Green tea called Ocha and Black tea called Kocha are major forms of beverages made in every household there. Both of which are high in antioxidants and are good for health.
Freedom of Thought
If the choice of even your beverage is dependent on your culture how free are you? I know very little but from what I know of literature one can spot the difference in the poetry of different countries based on the framing of words and the perspective.
Forget poetry, it’s eminently visible in the lyricism of every music industry. So it’s not just what you think but how you frame what you think has come largely from which culture you come from, which group you come from. "Who" it is that you respect, has a lot with “why” you respect such people. The answer to which generally comes from your culture. Most of what is acceptable to you but unacceptable or irrational to a foreigner are also the outcome of being high on your culture.
The Beauty & The Bane Of Culture
Culture gives a place and its people a unique and beautiful identification. It gives our little round world enough diversity to be fascinated by little foot rings, the little toddlers choosing their profession, the horse carriages, the passion for a distinct sport, the incredibly different cuisines, and equally different people in different parts of the world. It only takes away one thing, the ability to reason against the ills of a culture most of the time. The key to understanding the core of your own culture is no reason, after all, it is belief. But streamlined opinions may still lead to change but not necessarily to progress.
Funny it is that every person is bound yet everyone thinks they are open.
Travel or consume knowledge of what is different than you and how it works. Nobody can force you to accept new things but have the heart to explore and acknowledge them. That’s brave.