Cultural Differences

People often act a whole lot like each other. That is because, in addition to the common attributes of humanity (we all eat, we all sleep, etc.), we all identify as members of cultures. Culture is the "glue" that keeps society together: the meanings people share in terms of a common language, religion, style of dress, cuisine, and so forth.

Cultural Differences Cultural Differences

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    But you have to stand out from the crowd too, right? Your culture, or sub-culture, has to be able to define itself as a separate culture. Cultural difference is what it's all about, then.

    Cultural Differences Definition

    A culture is defined not just by its own attributes (its cultural traits) but also by what it is NOT. Skateboarders don't surf and surfers don't skate. Christians can eat pork, but Muslims do not. Danes' first language is Danish, not Swedish, but for Swedes, it's the opposite. You get the idea.

    Cultural Differences: Variations in cultural traits between cultures, including different music, different language, different religion, different cultural mores, and so forth.

    Cross Cultural Differences

    Humans belong to thousands of major cultures and myriad sub-cultures. In fact, we all belong to different cultures at the same time (perhaps you're Swedish and Baptist and a surfer and a lover of Italian cuisine, for example: there's four).

    We can't list all the possible cultures or the differences between them here, but we can talk a bit about types of cross-cultural differences.

    Differences in Physical Appearance

    The first thing you notice about someone who is different from you is probably visual (unless you are visually-impaired). Outward markers of cultural difference are obvious and important ways that cultural identities are maintained. These markers include:

    Dress (Clothing, Jewelry)

    What you wear and how you wear it are universal markers of culture. Some types of clothing, such as tee-shirts and blue jeans, may be markers of certain cultures or they may not be culturally significant at all. Other clothing is highly specific: if you wear a piece of jewelry with a religious symbol, you are signaling your membership in whatever that religion is.

    How you wear an item of clothing may also be important. Do you wear a ballcap? If so, which way does the visor face? How far above or below your waist do you wear pants? These are the types of cultural cues that can distinguish one culture or sub-culture from the next.

    Body modifications

    Tattooing, scarring (scarification), and other modifications have existed in human culture for millennia. In addition to still being prevalent in some traditional cultures, they have also been adopted as markers of numerous sub-cultures in modern societies, particularly in the West.

    Cultural Difference Datooga tattoo StudySmarterFig. 1 - A tattooed Datooga woman from Tanzania


    Have you ever thought about how you walk? Do you keep your hands in your pockets? Do you swagger? Do you walk quickly or slowly? The way you move your limbs in public may be markers of cultural difference.

    John Travolta's character in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever has an iconic swagger that marks his membership in a specific sub-culture.

    Body language

    Many cultures and sub-cultures use hand signals and other body language as non-verbal cues that mark cultural distinctiveness.

    Differences in Belief

    People from different cultures believe different things. For some cultures, this may be unimportant or trivial, but for others, a common set of beliefs that are unlike the beliefs of any other culture are what sets the culture apart. This is a hallmark of religion as well as certain political cultures.

    Politically liberal cultures hold distinct sets of beliefs from politically conservative cultures. These are related to fundamental issues such as stances on bodily autonomy, personal liberty, the significance of the family, and many others.

    Different Cultural Mores

    Skaters and surfers are probably not differentiated by fundamental beliefs. However, they are differentiated by their cultural mores. This means they have specific codes of conduct, rules, and norms by which they must abide to be accepted members of their subcultures.

    All cultures and subcultures have specific cultural mores. Even if you can't tell the members of two cultures apart by external appearance, you will know they are distinct as soon as they tell you what the rules are for joining their culture (if that is a possibility).

    Different Actions

    What people DO as members of a culture is a major marker of their identity. What do Spanish speakers do? They speak Spanish. Skaters skate; surfers surf. Religious people attend religious services, make and visit shrines, read sacred texts, celebrate holidays in certain ways, and so forth.

    Different Stuff

    If you want to be a rock-climber and be accepted in that sub-culture, you'll need the right gear. Not just any old gear, but the right brands. The same goes for many cultures, whether you're a member of a motorcycle gang or a symphony orchestra.

    Different Landscapes

    Finally, it wouldn't be geography if we didn't mention cultural landscapes. Many cultures create or alter cultural landscapes to the extent that these become markers of their identity. You wouldn't confuse the cultural landscapes of southern France with those of the New Jersey, USA beaches, after all, would you?

    Cultural Differences Jersey shore StudySmarterFig. 2 - Distinctive cultural landscape of the "Jersey Shore," the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, New Jersey, USA

    Cultural Differences in Communication

    All the above differences involve some type of communication, whether using words or communicating ideas in other forms. In that sense, then, each culture has its own communication system: its own language. This might not be called a "language," though: it might be a code, a slang, a lingo, a dialect, a creole, a patois, a pidgin, or even a system of musical notation.

    Different Cultures Around the World

    Many, though certainly not all, cultures are geographically distinct. By this, we mean that they are found in some places and not others.

    The exception, to a great extent, is the burgeoning world of Internet cultures and sub-cultures. While some of these are connected to physical cultures in the real world, others are entirely online or "virtual."

    Online gaming cultures exist as 'placeless,' decentralized networks of players scattered across the world. There is some geographic differentiation, however, because Internet access to certain games may be restricted or banned in some countries.

    Cultural Diffusion

    All cultures originate somewhere. The ways that they spread are known as cultural diffusion. Depending on how long this takes and how it works, cultures can change as they diffuse from one place to another, or they can remain substantially the same. This may depend on the nature of the culture: how strict are its cultural mores? How unshakeable are its beliefs? Are the original members of the culture still in communication with or visible to other members elsewhere?

    A culture with strict mores and little communication with outsiders may change very little, even if some of its members migrate halfway across the globe. However, if, as happened before modern telecommunications, the diaspora group is largely cut off from the group in the homeland, a sort of cultural "drift" will occur as the migrants experience new influences and make decisions and modifications distinct from those happening in the homeland.

    Cultural Differences Examples

    When it comes to human culture, there is no universal standard or norm. There are only social groups that may set a standard or impose a norm, sometimes in an attempt to erase or prevent cultural differences.

    This was seen in Communist China during the time of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. Cultural differences of all types were eradicated: people were forced to wear standardized clothing and talk and think in proscribed ways, while cultural monuments were destroyed.

    But cultural differences always reassert themselves. Old cultures may not be entirely destroyed (China's folk religions survived and now thrive again), while new cultures arise constantly.

    Gender Expression

    Subcultures in the West based on gender differences beyond the traditional binary of male and female have been a major and controversial phenomenon in the 21st century. This has particularly been the case in countries such as the US and UK, which have few legal or social limits on personal expression.

    However, expression of gender in ways other than traditional male and female is not a first-time Western invention. Many ethnic cultures worldwide have accommodated more than two gender identities. Two of the best-known are the Bugis of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and the Muxes of Oaxaca.


    Bugis culture has five genders: cisgender men and cisgender women; transgender men and transgender women; and intersex or androgynous people (bissu), who are often shamans. Bugis society is Muslim and three million strong, and the complex system of gender is centuries old. Nevertheless, non-traditional gender roles, particular of the bissu, have led to discrimination from outside groups ranging from Dutch colonialists to the modern Indonesian government.


    In Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, the dominant culture is Zapotec. Muxes (pronounced "moo-shays") are transgender men (assigned male at birth) who, while historically suffering marginalization, have attained a wide degree of cultural acceptance across Mexico. Muxes often take on traditionally female appearances and work, and marry men or women.

    Cultural Differences Oaxaca Muxe StudySmarterFig. 3 - Lukas Avendano, a renowned Zapotec anthropologist and muxe

    Lukas Avendano is a Zapotec anthropologist and performance artist and also a muxe. In his work, he highlights the struggles of muxes and transgender people in general in Mexico, who have traditionally faced high levels of discrimination and violence.

    Cultural Differences - Key takeaways

    • All cultures are differentiated from each other.
    • Cultural differences range from differences in language and dress to body modification, beliefs, mores, landscapes, and even gear.
    • Cultural differences arise constantly and are diffused throughout the physical world as people move, or through the Internet.
    • Though cultural differences are often eradicated, they frequently reassert themselves, for example after the Cultural Revolution in China.
    • Gender expression in the West is differentiated beyond male and female, and this is also the case in traditional cultures such as the Bugis of Indonesia who have five genders, and the muxes of Mexico, who are a third gender.


    1. Fig. 1 Datooga woman ( by Kathy Gerber (kathleen.gerber) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
    2. Fig. 3 Lukas Avendano ( by Mario Patinho is licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Differences

    What is a cultural difference?

    A cultural difference is a distinguishing trait that helps define a culture.

    What are examples of cultural differences?

    Examples of cultural difference include differences in physical appearance, beliefs, cultural mores, and landscapes.

    Why are cultural differences important?

    Cultural differences are important because they are what help separate one culture from another.

    Why are cultural differences a problem?

    Cultural differences can be problematic because they can cause discrimination.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Body modification is only found in the West.

    Cultures number in the _______ worldwide.

    The following is NOT a type of cultural difference:

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