What Does the Titanic Have in Common with Culture?

Culture is shared, adaptive, and learned but what could it possibly have in common with the Titanic? In my previous article, I introduced the idea of multicultural individuals as people who have more than one culture. But to grasp the concept of what it means to have more than one culture, we first need to ask: what is culture?

To begin with, culture is shared (among a group of people), adaptive (i.e., can change over time) and learned (i.e., transmitted from one generation to the next). [note]Gelfand, M. J., Erez, M., & Aycan, Z. 2007. Cross-cultural organizational behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58: 479–514.[/note]. Typically, when we talk about culture, we refer to ethnic or national culture – i.e., shared among people of the same ethnicity or nationality. What, then, makes up ethnic or national culture?

Culture is shared, adaptive, and learned but what makes up ethnic or national culture? Click To Tweet

Go along to any multiculturalism festival, where you’ll likely sample cuisines from around the world, hear different languages, and enjoy colourful performances and cultural displays.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is what culture is all about. But there’s much more to culture.


What Does the Titanic Have in Common with Culture?



….the Iceberg!

Culture is like an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, above the surface, represents elements of culture that we can see, such as food, dress, mannerisms, symbols and architecture. These elements are obvious when we meet someone from a different culture or find ourselves in a different cultural environment. But beneath the surface lies the bulk of the iceberg. This important portion represents the deeper elements of culture, which go way down to the core of who we are. Deeper elements of culture include beliefs, assumptions, values and norms. Although these cultural elements are invisible on the surface, they have a profound influence on us.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Cultural psychologists have established, for instance, that people from various cultures differ even in something as fundamental as self-concept – i.e., the meaning of “I”[/perfectpullquote]

. In some cultures, such as North American and Western European cultures, people tend to have an independent view of the self: I am a separate and distinct entity [note] Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. 1991. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2): 224.[/note]. In other cultures, such as many Asian, African, Latin-American, and southern European cultures, people tend to have an interdependent view of the self: I am connected with others and embedded in a broader social context [note] Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. 1991. Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2): 224.[/note]. Neuroscientists have found evidence for cultural differences in interdependent versus independent self-concepts at the level of brain representations. [note]Zhu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, J., & Han, S. 2007. Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation. Neuroimage, 34(3): 1310–1316 [/note].

Parenting beliefs cultivate either an interdependent or independent self-concept from infancy. Click To Tweet

These differences in self-concept shape cultural differences in our thinking, emotions, and motivations.

For example, to illustrate how our self-concept influences how we think, try this now: Think of a recent behaviour of an acquaintance, and explain the reasons for her or his behavior. Read on only after you have done this! Did your explanation of behavior focus on inner traits of the person (e.g. lazy, kind, arrogant), or on the situation (e.g., the train was late, the place was noisy)? Research has shown that the average explanation differs across cultures: North Americans (i.e., independent self-concept, generally) tend to focus on inner traits, while Japanese (i.e., interdependent self-concept, generally) focus both on inner traits and the situation [note] Lee, H., Shimizu, Y., Masuda, T., & Uleman, J. S. 2017. Cultural differences in spontaneous trait and situation inferences. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(5): 1–17.[/note].

Without knowing it, we are socialised in a certain culture (or cultures) from a young age. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Parenting beliefs and strategies differ across cultures, and tend to cultivate either an interdependent or independent self-concept from infancy. [/perfectpullquote]

For instance, in cultures that value interdependence or relatedness, it is common to carry a baby in a sling; by contrast, in cultures that emphasise independence or autonomy, it is usual practice to push a baby in a stroller[note] Keller, H., & Kärtner, J. 2013. Development: The cultural solution of universal developmental tasks. In M. J. Gelfand, C.-Y. Chiu, & Y. Hong (Eds.), Advances in Culture and Psychology: 63–116. New York: Oxford University Press [/note]. Another example: In many parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, babies typically sleep in the same bed as their mothers; yet in the United States and Germany, it is viewed favourably if a baby is able to sleep through the night in a different place or different room from the parents [note]Greenfield, P. M., Keller, H., Fuligni, A., & Maynard, A. 2003. Cultural pathways through universal development. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1): 461–490[/note].

Each of us is continuously and subconsciously receiving cultural signals from all around us. Click To Tweet

These examples illustrate that each of us is continuously and subconsciously receiving cultural signals from all around us, starting from the moment we are born, which guide us to develop certain cultural beliefs, values and assumptions.

However, with greater intercultural contact these days, it’s less likely that someone can be defined in terms of a single culture. Yes, some people stick with one culture their whole lives (i.e., the culture into which they were born). But others will adopt another culture as their own at some point during their lives, in addition to their native culture (e.g., migrants). Still others will be raised with more than one culture (e.g., multiracial children). Those in the latter two categories are known as multicultural individuals.

Now you might wonder how different cultures coexist within a multicultural individual. In the next article, I will share with you how multicultural individuals navigate between different cultures.

Photo Credit: State Library of Queensland. This is a hand drawn black and white picture of the RMS Titanic, captioned ‘S.S. Titanic.

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Also read:  Multicultural Individuals in the Workplace

0 Comments on “What Does the Titanic Have in Common with Culture?”

  1. Thanks for writing this! This is something I think about frequently and I find myself straddling the line between interdepedent and independent.. due to being American, but being raised by Chinese parents. I often find myself “defending” one sense of self-concept to the other and vice versa.
    I get frustrated when I encounter people who operate from within only one concept without regard for the other. But I’m guessing this is a pretty common experience for children of immigrants, as well as kids raised in multi-cultural homes.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lynnette! That’s very interesting to hear that you recognise both interdependent and independent elements in yourself… Being able to operate with different cultural perspectives is one advantage of being multicultural, though it can sometimes cause internal conflict. As you say, yes, this is fairly common for those who are children of immigrants and/or raised in a multicultural home. I’ll be writing more about this in my next column actually… would love to know any more thoughts you have on this later! 🙂

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