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It’s the Culture!!! But, what is “culture”?

February 26, 2015
By Juan Tornoe 

Culture here, culture there, culture everywhere. Along with “customer engagement” and “content marketing”, culture is one of the words that has been popping up on my newsfeed, at the office, during client meetings, you name it.

“We live in a multicultural society.”

“You need to connect with [any group’s name]’s culture.”

“I am proud of my culture!” 

“The Latino culture ________________. (Fill in the blank)

Many, including myself, use (sometimes overuse) it so often, so loosely that, we tend to dilute its power and many times distort its meaning. As much as I try staying true to its nature when talking about it with colleagues and clients alike, it’s way too easy to slip and fumble this powerful word’s handling.

Thankfully, I was “cornered” into performing a deep dive on the subject, for a panel at the Center for Hispanic Marketing and Communication at FSU’s 2015 International Conference on Media and Marketing. This made me gather all my notes and mullings about culture and arrange them in a succinct manner.

Therefore, here are my two cents on culture… hope you enjoy.

First, let’s look at its definition…

Culture is the collective social institutions, customs, intellectual expressions, values, and way of life of a particular group.

It is very important to note that there is no mention of “ethnicity” within the previous description.

Now let’s dive a little deeper and look into each of its building blocks, or Elements of Culture.

  • Social Institutions: The organization of the group into smaller groups - friends, families, occupations, and interests. For Hispanics, think of our extended family, including that guy that who we were taught to call tío (uncle) and later in life we found out he was not related to us!
  • Customs: Beliefs, traditions, and collective history, defining patterns of behavior. An example within most in the Latino community – although painfully I am an exception – is our more relaxed concept of time, and punctuality that comes along with it. I like to say that we live in LST, Latino Standard Time.
  • Intellectual Expressions: Including but not limited to arts, literature, and most certainly cuisine; they teach about a culture’s characteristics, promoting pride and unity within the group. For Hispanics, it goes from Mariachis to Mofongo, Mate and Mole, all the way to Mario Vargas Llosa… you get the picture.
  • Values: The standards or judgments of what is right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable. An example worth pointing out is the Collectivism that permeates within the Latino community; that “WE” over “me” frame of mind, striving for the success and welfare of the group over that of the individual.
  • Language: Used for communication within the group and passing on customs, values, and accessing intellectual expressions. It is an important element of culture, yet just one of its elements. As much as I can’t argue that Spanish, even if it is a simple “Oye, ven pa’ca m’ijo”, strikes Hispanics in the innermost parts of their being, given the multigenerational nature of persons with Latin American heritage living in the United States, language alone can’t be a defining characteristic of the Latino experience.
  • Symbols: Anything that has been given representational meaning by the members of the group. The average non-Hispanic person sees a sandal, or even a picture of it, and is unshaken. If you’re Latino and are confronted with the same image, it is very likely your insides will recoil a tad at the memory of the all-mighty “chancleta” and your mom’s preferred way of utilizing it while enforcing discipline at home.

Finally, culture is not static, but rather transforms continually based on the forces that impact it. Here are three influences that affect culture; therefore you must keep in mind:

  • Technology: Enables and accelerates the preservation of a culture’s elements. With today’s technological advancements, we have instant access to anything and everyone who reinforces our culture. For Hispanics, we observe that Social Media simply gives us more options to do what we naturally do, not only across the street, but also across the country and with our friends and family in Latin America. WhatsApp is a wonderful thing.
  • Environment: Your surroundings will mold your culture and its expressions. It is a completely different experience to live in a large city vs. a small town. Not only by its size and infrastructure, but also by its ethnic diversity, languages primarily spoken there, as well as the place of birth and heritage of those persons with whom you directly or indirectly interact.
  • Diffusion: This is the movement of customs and ideas from one place/group to another. As much as the American culture influences and modifies our community’s “Latinoness”, so we, as the largest minority in the U.S. are redefining the general market. Think tortillas outselling white bread.

Although I’ve addressed the culture issue from an unashamedly Hispanic perspective, sprinkling example after example with what I know and hold close to my heart, the above concepts could and should be applied to any other people group in order to better understand them and connect with them in a more efficient and long-term manner.

How can you apply these elements and influences to better understanding Latino Culture or any other culture for that matter? I look forward to learning what you come up with!