Cultural Symbols, Values, and Norms

Role of Symbols in Culture

A symbol carries meaning to the people who share a culture because it is created and maintained by the members of the culture.

A symbol, something that carries meaning to people who share a culture, is broadly understood and used so frequently that it does not require explanation. Language, which is both an element and a reflection of culture, is a system of symbols that allows members of a culture to communicate with one another. Words symbolize objects, ideas, and actions. However, sometimes these meanings vary by culture. For example, English is a language used by many cultures, but some English words have different meanings in different cultural contexts. The word call in American culture means to contact someone by telephone. In Britain, however, call is used to express paying a visit to someone, while the word ring means to contact via phone. The meaning of the words call and ring is dependent on culture. These words symbolize different actions to English speakers in different cultures.

Communication is based upon the use of mutually understood symbols. Language and other systems of communication are deeply embedded in the culture that creates them. Communication can be verbal or nonverbal. Verbal communication can occur through both writing and speaking. Nonverbal communication also includes written communication, body language and gestures, and alternative systems of communication such as Braille and sign language. Both verbal and nonverbal communication depend on a broader cultural context.

People create and interpret the meaning of all symbols solely through shared cultural understanding. Communication can occur only if people know how to use and interpret a shared set of symbols. The ability to communicate is thus rooted in culture. A culture's shared set of symbols is produced and maintained through shared cultural beliefs, practices, traditions, and expectations.

Many symbols are visual. For example, in some cultures particular colors are associated with gender, such as pink for girls and blue for boys. Another example is traffic signage such as stop signs or symbols used on highways to indicate where to stop for gas, food, or lodging. In some cultures, accents on letters tell people how words are pronounced. Gestures also have symbolic meaning. For instance, in American culture a kiss on the cheek symbolizes love and close ties or feelings of intimacy. In other cultures, such as French culture and Mexican culture, a kiss on the cheek is understood as a basic greeting.
A symbol has meaning within a culture, because of a shared understanding of what the symbol signifies. Stories, traditions, history, and cultural norms contribute to the meaning of a symbol.
Symbols help people define and understand their culture because of the shared meanings of different symbols that are learned during the process of socialization, the process through which people learn the values, norms, beliefs, and expectations of their society. At the most basic level, symbols are important because they help people craft meaning in their interactions with one another.

Culture Shock

Culture shock occurs when people encounter unfamiliar symbols, norms, and practices, and are keenly aware of their inability to interpret and follow them.

Culture shock, a feeling of disorientation or strangeness people may experience when they find themselves in an unfamiliar cultural environment, is a result of being surrounded by unfamiliar symbols. It can occur when people travel or relocate to another country vastly different from their own or when they return home from immersion in a foreign culture that has become familiar. Not only must people learn how to read and understand new symbols—including language, visual symbols, gestures, and practices—they also have to learn how to behave according to the customs of the new social environment. People often feel confused or out of place when they are in a state of culture shock. How they respond to a new culture is often rooted in their own culture's perception of that new culture. In many instances people have to work hard to overcome the initial sense of personal stress that comes with being in a new environment.

Culture shock depends on many factors. A person moving from an urban center in Canada to a large city in the United States might experience less culture shock than someone moving within either country from a small town to a big city. A person who has traveled widely and then moves to a new area might experience less culture shock than someone who has never traveled. The degree to which someone experiences culture shock depends on a person's socialization and personal experiences with other cultures.

Cultural Values, Beliefs, and Norms

Values, beliefs, and norms are key components that define and characterize a culture.

Culture includes values, beliefs, and norms that are understood and shared by members of the culture. A value, a belief, practice, or idea that is considered important, worthy, and fundamental, can be held by an individual. However, cultural values tend to inform individuals' values. Cultural values are moral beliefs that are widely held in a society. They encompass what most people in a society consider to be right or wrong. When people value something, it becomes normative (common and seen as normal). For instance, if cleanliness is a value, handwashing becomes normative. Even if some individuals do not personally hold this value, the larger society encourages it. In the case of handwashing, there are laws about handwashing for food service workers and signs in restaurants telling employees and patrons to wash their hands.

Across a society, cultural values underpin what the society deems to be good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, normal or strange. Cultural beliefs are ideas that members of the culture hold to be true and are rooted in the shared values of the culture. Like individual values, individual beliefs are influenced by culture. Cultural beliefs can include religious beliefs but also extend to beliefs about right and wrong, justice, health, family, money, and virtually all spheres of life. For example, most cultures hold beliefs about children, including how adults should treat children and how children should be raised. These can vary widely. Some cultures stress allowing children to express themselves and develop self-confidence, while others emphasize teaching children to show respect and develop self-control. A norm is a cultural expectation for behavior. Norms are essentially unwritten but widely accepted rules that guide the actions and choices of members of a culture. Smiling and chatting to a cashier at the grocery store is a norm in some cultures but is considered odd or even rude in others. Values, beliefs, and norms vary widely across cultures. Sociologists attempt to understand cultural values, beliefs, and norms and to use them in order to analyze society and social behavior. They also look at how and why values, beliefs, and norms change.

Cultural values and beliefs tend to be relatively stable and long-lasting. In contrast, norms change and evolve more frequently. For example, norms related to smoking, cohabitation, and public displays of affection changed fairly significantly in the United States during the 20th century. A reversal in norms around smoking in public illustrates this. Smoking was a common behavior, and smokers were almost universally accommodated in public places such as offices, stores, and restaurants until the 1990s, when this pattern began to change. Following new understandings about the health impacts of smoking, policies and norms about when and where smoking is allowed and expected began to shift. Many norms and practices changed in the United States during the 20th century, while overarching values and beliefs characterizing American culture remained more stable in comparison. American values and beliefs certainly did not remain static during this period. However, many foundational values and beliefs about freedom, individualism, entrepreneurship, and capitalism are deeply embedded in American culture and do not tend to change significantly with new generations. Data from Gallup polling, for instance, shows some generational differences in percentages of people who see capitalism as positive, but the majority of all age groups consistently rank it as positive.

Values, beliefs, and norms shape the practices, symbols, traditions, and institutions of a culture. They influence social behavior, social interactions, and social structure. Sociology stresses the need to understand and neutrally observe cultural values, beliefs, and norms in order to study and understand societies and social behavior.