What is Culture?

If I recall correctly, one anthropological author categorized some 254 definitions of the term culture. I think I read the first dozen or so and stopped. But, of course, it would not have mattered if I had all of them at my beck and call the night I wound up discussing culture with ‘Chaales” – Charles for those who don’t speak with an affected accent.

Charles only believed in culture with a capital C, not lowercase. He had no fondness for the affectations of the common lot. “Culture” was created. Design was involved, not the obtuse scratchings in the dirt of the proletariat.

I might have abandoned the evening early if the other company at dinner had not more than compensated for the boorish behavior of one pseudo-Brahmin. But Charles finally did get to me. At last, he demanded that I define culture as I understood it. So I began rattling off three or four definitions. I went through it being shared behavior, attitudes, goals and beliefs, etc. I rattled on for great length because, in those days, all of that stuff was at my mental fingertips. I would soon sit for my Ph.D. Comprehensive Exams: There always was a culture definition question in it, a freebee giveaway that no one could miss.

After all this he gave me a slight pouting smirk and asked, “Yes, all of that is fine. But what is Culture?”

I was more than a bit exasperated, and realizing that I was being baited, I snapped out a sarcastic line I had used in a vulgar little song I had written about our anthropology department. In it, a grad student tiring of continual queries about what culture is snapped out that, like True Love, culture is a many splendored thing.

That seemed to stop him, and before he could recover, I turned my back and walked into another knot of people having a more mundane discussion about the dinner we had just finished. But since then, I rarely go beyond basic definitions of what culture is, and then they tell them that like true love, it’s a many splendored thing.

And that’s my definition of culture, and I’m sticking with it.

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