In the story called “The blind men and the elephant”, originally developed in south Asia, six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each of them touches a different part of the animal and their variety of perspectives leads to different assumptions of what an elephant is. This story depicts how reality can be perceived in many ways and that there is almost always more than just one ultimate truth. Like this metaphor, culture is a concept which is not easy to define. A better understanding of culture’s complexity makes it easier to navigate and appreciate the cultural variety that we experience.  

But what is culture exactly? How can we define such an abstract concept? 

According to Dr. Milton Bennett, an intercultural communication researcher who has advised AFS, culture can be defined as shared characteristics (values, behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, etc.) and learned tendencies or patterns of a group that are transferred from one generation to the next and can adapt slowly over time. Moreover, every individual has a cultural background that affects their way of thinking, behaving, and feeling, and it functions as a system of orientation. Culture influences our perception of the world and one needs to be aware of one’s own system of orientation to figure out the best way to interact with foreign rules, structures, and people from different cultures. 

Some facets or manifestations of culture are more obvious and concrete (like art or attire), while others are less noticeable or subconscious (like body language or the social values that dictate it). A helpful way to make this complex concept and its different aspects more tangible is by using models that help us visualize it.