Experiences and observations of an Ausländer in Germany...
What is culture? We are fish, culture is water…
What is culture? We are fish, culture is water…

What is culture? We are fish, culture is water…

What is culture?

I can give you a thousand examples of what culture is (it will take a few hours, but I promise you will find my failures entertaining). But creating a 2-3 sentence definition, one that encompasses all those examples, has proved a challenge.
Let’s think like a fish for a minute.

We live in water, everything that happens to us, everything we do, everything we eat and experience is done in water. This water is “culture” — it is all around us, it is pervasive and it exists mostly un-noticed.
Still a fish, we notice that we live among a group of rocks, while other fish near us live in a hollow under a sunken ship. However, every fish we know within a good distance from us experiences the same water, with water of the same temperature and visibility, living among the same watery plant life and aquatic creatures.
Some of us might prefer that it were warmer, some colder, some of us prefer to live under rocks, others in the open. But none of that changes the fact that we are all living in the same water and that that water and all that goes with it determine a considerable portion of our decisions and activities.
Put another way: culture is not an agreement about what we should do or not do. Rather culture is a collection of factors and issues that most people believe are important and worthy of discussion.
For example, I might say that punctuality is important to Germans. My students at the Uni counter, “But not all Germans are punctual.” And I reply, “Yes, that is true. But nearly all Germans will engage in a discussion about punctuality and how or whether it is important. In another culture, the idea of ‘punctuality’ as Germans understand may be incomprehensible and a non-topic.”
In summary, “culture” is the water we swim and live in — it may get warmer or colder, offer more or less to eat from one year to the next — but regardless of how it changes, it surrounds everyone and dictates the topics that are important and worthy of discussion.

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