Why cultures collide and what you can do about it



Every day of your life, you make cultures without even consciously trying to. That’s because your everyday thoughts, feelings, and actions feed into the cultures of which you are a part, just as your cultures shape your thoughts, feelings, and actions—your self. We call the process of selves and cultures making each other the culture cycle.

To help you remember how the culture cycle works, we’ve broken it down into four elements: I’s, interactions, institutions, and ideas. As the figure below shows, your I (self, mind, psyche, soul) anchors the left side of the culture cycle with its thoughts, feelings, and actions. The right-hand “culture” side of the cycle includes interactions, institutions, and ideas.

Culture Cycle

The part of the culture cycle we experience most often is our daily interactions with other people and with products. These interactions follow seldom-spoken norms about the right ways to behave at home, school, work, worship, play, etc. Guiding these practices are mundane cultural products—stories, songs, advertisements, tools, architecture, etc.—that make some ways to think, feel, and act easier than others.

The next layer of culture is made up of the institutions within which everyday interactions take place. Institutions spell out the rules for a society and include legal, government, economic, scientific, philosophical, and religious bodies. No single person knows all the laws, policies, origin stories, or theories at play in their cultures. Nevertheless, institutions exert a formidable force, silently allowing certain practices and products while forbidding others.

The last and most abstract layer of the culture cycle is made up of the central, usually invisible ideas that inform our institutions, interactions, and, ultimately, our I’s. Like the unseen forces that hold our planet together, these background ideas hold our cultures together. Because of them, cultures have an overarching pattern. To be sure, cultures harbor plenty of exceptions to their own rules. But they also contain general patterns than can be detected, studied, and even changed.

Because you actively construct your cultures, you are not a slave to them. When people are mindful of the cultural forces around them, they can amend, riff on, or even altogether reject their influences. This is why we have technology, revolutions, and progress, rather than just “same species, different century.”

Though you are not a slave to your cultures, you are not the lone master of them, either. Because your self and your cultures are so inextricably intertwined, changing your self and your world requires changing your culture cycles. In particular, you must alter the cycle’s interactions and institutions, in addition to your I. You cannot directly alter the big ideas that animate the entire culture cycle, because they are so deeply rooted. But over time, as I’s, interactions, and institutions shift, big ideas follow suit. And once a new big idea takes hold, a sustainable new culture cycle begins to roll.

  2 Responses to “THE CULTURE CYCLE”

  1. It is interesting to see that in your system of the 4 layers of cultural cycle, the “interaction” layer is not directly connected with the “idea” layer. it is really fascinating to think and realise how many unspoken rules and assumed conventions we take in daily interaction with each other. One observation that i have is that the internet has somehow made these underlying rules more transparent: their identity disguised, people are willing to discuss these “cultural taboos” if you would, transgress the lines occasionally, and even discuss the previously unspoken rules out loud with fellow netizens.

    on another note, do you have some examples of the big ideas you mentioned in the last paragraph? Would you say that the speed that the dominant ideas change is getting faster and faster nowadays?

  2. Hello Xi,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. In truth, ideas and interactions are directly connected, but for the sake of simplicity, we did not draw that line.

    Indeed, the anonymity of the Internet does give people a chance to discuss their cultures’ values, beliefs, and assumptions–for better and for worse. Just as we have seen complete strangers build new bridges of cross-cultural understanding in the space of a few YouTube comments, we have also seen strangers become more and more entrenched in their prejudices shouting past each other rather than attempting to listen to the other side.

    As for the big ideas: page 18 in our book lists several. These big ideas are a culture’s answers to big questions such as, Where did the world come from? How did things come to be the way they are? Why do things change? And, undergirding all, What is good?

    To answer your final question: yes, technology and the sheer number of people on the planet have hastened the speed of change. At the same time, however, people’s desire for distinct cultural identities, along with intensified competition for resources, has led many people to hold on to many cultural ideas, interactions, and institutions that in earlier times might have more easily changed.

    Thank you once again for posting.

    All best,
    Hazel and Alana

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