10 ways culture shapes our collective identity

We tend to think of our identity as individual — and of course, we have significant power to shape who we want to be.

However, we cannot ignore another huge factor: our culture. 

Everyone within a culture still conserves their own uniqueness, but they also share a lot in common. This is what we call a collective identity.

As you work to get to know yourself and become the best person you can, you might be wondering how your own culture influences your path. 

Well, you’re about to discover 10 ways how. 

Read on to find out how collective identity works, and 10 ways that your culture influences your collective identity. 

What is collective identity?

There are many facets to your identity — you may think of your individual identity as your personality traits, your interests, and your values.

We also have a collective identity. This is defined as your sense of belonging to a group.

For example, if your friends all dress the same way, eat the same thing, and spend their free time on the same activities, and you feel like you are a part of that group, you will take on these aspects of the group identity as part of your own identity.

The root of the collective identity is a sense of belonging. 

When you strongly identify with a group, the group’s characteristics can become even more important to you than your own. 

Therefore, choosing what groups you want to identify with can help you acquire better habits and values, or even worse ones.

How does culture shape our collective identity?

By definition, culture affects a very large number of people — often those belonging to a particular nationality or country. 

So when we talk about how culture affects our identity, we mean the collective identity. 

When I spent a few months abroad in Europe, I noticed that ex-pats from the same countries tended to bond together and stick together as friends, even if they didn’t have much in common.

This is a great example of culture shaping their collective identity. 

In their own country, they may not find they have much in common, and therefore not become friends. But in an unknown environment, they identified with each other because of their similar upbringing and background, and this made them define themselves as a group. 

So how exactly does culture shape us in this way?

Here are the 10 main ways.

10 ways culture shapes our collective identity

1) Our language shapes the way we think

If you’ve learned at least one foreign language, you’ve surely noticed how there are radical differences in the language’s structure and vocabulary.

And these shape our collective identity because they can affect the way we think. 

The words that are available for you to use in a language can define or limit the concepts you understand or find unknown.

For example, Japanese has a range of very spiritually centered concepts that are expressed very concisely in a single word. For example, “shinrin-yoku” is a concept we would describe as “forest bathing,” where a person spends time in a forest soaking up the peaceful atmosphere. 

Another such word is “ikigai”, which is a type of happiness derived from finding one’s life purpose, which in turn is made up of a person’s job, skills, interests, and impact on others. 

We need a long and complicated sentence to express these types of things in English, and they are concepts that seem a bit difficult for us. We need time to wrap our minds around them. 

But Japanese people can convey those ideas in a single word. 

And because they have this word in their language, the entire culture is already familiar with this kind of concept. It is part of the framework from which they understand and navigate the world, and what they can identify with.  

2) The geography shapes the activities we are used to

Landscape is another factor that shapes culture, and by extension our collective identity. 

When a culture is created within a particular landscape and climate, different activities become a part of its lifestyle.

For example, in The Netherlands where the entire country is flat, it becomes possible for people to bike easily throughout the city. 

And if you’ve ever visited, you’ll definitely be impressed by the mounds of bikes that are locked everywhere you turn!

On the other hand, people there don’t tend to do much hiking — because, well, it’s a bit hard to hike on completely flat ground. 

I’ve also met a few people from Slovakia, which is overflowing with nature everywhere you turn. Forests, lakes, rivers, mountains — all within a city. 

And I’ve noticed that people there tend to appreciate spending time in nature much more than North Americans do. It’s very common for people to go hiking in the mountains over the weekend, or take a walk in the forest. 

I tend to befriend similar types of people everywhere I go, but I never really saw anyone spending that much time in nature in countries where it is not a prominent part of the landscape. 

3) The political climate shapes our worldview

You might think politics don’t influence a culture, but they definitely do.

I can think of one specific example: when I visited Slovakia, I noticed that whenever I had to deal with public servants or even assistants in shops, the younger generations were much, much more pleasant than the older ones.

Someone later explained to me that it’s probably because the older generations grew up in a different regime.

They lived under communism, and entrepreneurship wasn’t possible. They had no reason to try to be kind to customers as they didn’t stand to gain anything from it — and many of them had difficult lives. 

The younger generations didn’t experience this, and were brought up in a more capitalistic society. That’s why many of them adopt a much friendlier attitude, especially when dealing with the public. 

As you can see, this can influence collective identities in different ways even within the same culture, as time goes by and the situation changes. 

4) The crime rate determines your sense of freedom and trust

I was once about to drive to a restaurant with a friend from Brazil. We got into the car and I started fumbling around in my bag. 

He commented that doing something like this was unheard of in his home country, because someone could walk up to your car with a weapon, order you to get out, and drive off with your car. 

Even stopping at traffic lights was dangerous for the same reason, so many people ignored the traffic signals. 

Obviously, when a culture experiences crime like this, people develop habits to keep themselves safe. Something that was totally normal to do in North America was completely unheard of in Brazil, and vice versa. 

On the contrary, a friend from Canada told me he once went to a café to work on his laptop, and was so deep in thought as he was leaving that he forgot it there. When he returned half an hour later, his laptop was still sitting on the table, completely untouched. 

I was amazed by this, because while I was traveling in Spain, I had witnessed someone’s phone being stolen in a café right from under his nose. Unfortunately, the thief got away before anyone realized what had happened. 

As you can see, the crime rate and how common different types of crimes are will affect not only your behavior, but also how you view other people within your collective identity. 

In one culture, you’d trust people to leave your things unattended for a while, and in another you wouldn’t dream of it. 

5) Cultural celebrations affect where you find joy

Whenever I talk to my friends from Spain, I’m amazed to hear that there’s some sort of celebration right around the corner.

First it’s their town’s saint, then it’s a tradition specific to an area, then it’s the summer eclipse, or a carnival-type celebration. 

The people there would take any excuse to go out onto the streets, dance to some music, and enjoy good food and drinks with their friends. 

In comparison, my own hometown feels unbelievably bland. 

This is a part of a certain culture, and it also has a significant effect on our collective identity. 

It shapes how you view time off, and how you spend it. Do you stay at home because everything is closed, or do you go out to experience some lively celebrations?

Naturally, everyone has individual preferences, but the options that are available to you will contribute to shaping where you tend to find joy. 

6) Religion shapes the way you understand the world

So far we’ve talked a lot about culture in the more geographical and national sense.

But of course, there are many more facets to culture: including religion.

This is a pretty significant one, because it gives you answers to big picture questions like whether or not there is a god, what the meaning of life is, and how you should live yours. 

Many religions have certain practices that people must follow, and this helps people bond as they share those experiences with other believers.

Religions also tend to prescribe principles and values to people, so they find many points in common with other members of the same religion. 

how many people does it take to make a religion 1 10 ways culture shapes our collective identity

But even if someone doesn’t belong to a formal religion, the way they choose to comprehend the world still influences their identity.

For example, a good friend of mine has adopted a worldview influenced by Buddhism, but also including other principles from books like The Seat of the Soul. 

When she meets someone else who thinks the same way, she can immediately relate to this person and feels connected with them. 

They can truly understand each other because they both have the same outlook on life, with the same framework for understanding challenges and making decisions. 

7) The rules influence our sense of right and wrong

Different cultures can have different respect for rules, and expectations for what will follow them.

I was particularly struck by this when I was talking with an older friend of mine who had taught math both in America and in a country in Eastern Europe. 

The students in America tended to respect teachers, and respected when they got a bad grade as a result of poor studying.

So she was appalled to find that students in Eastern Europe would feel entitled to get a good grade even if they didn’t deserve it, and argued with everyone they could in order to ask for more points. 

The American students had learned that grades reflect how well you perform on the test. But the Eastern European ones clearly thought that they could be changed through negotiation.

Unfortunately, this is a reality in many areas in Eastern Europe, where you can ensure better medical service for significant treatments by giving a “bonus” to the doctor treating you. 

It’s considered normal there, and people operate within this system in order to get what they need done. 

With this, people can understand certain behavior and either identify with each other or find a certain decision immoral.  

8) Social norms influence how you interact with others

How punctual are you expected to be? What are you allowed to ask strangers? What are you expected to wear to work?

Questions like these determine social norms, which are another way that culture shapes our collective identity.

A friend of mine who moved to Denmark told me that most of the nation tends to wear dark colors. It’s not very common for people to wear bright items or eye-catching patterns. 

Her own style was more on the “fun” side, but she adapted the way she dressed in order to fit in better to her new environment. 

Though this is a very simple example, even things like the way you dress can make you feel more similar to other people, and identify with them.

Interaction with others is also heavily influenced by social norms. In America and Canada, for example, it is more normal to strike up a conversation with someone on the street.

I’ve made friends in this way at the airport, at a bookstore, and even just walking around on the street. 

When I visited Central Europe, I realized that this was seen as strange more than anything else, and it’s more rare to find someone who comfortably approaches people like this. 

9) Your culture’s history influences your beliefs and values

The past is the past, and we might like to forget about it in some instances.

But it not only tends to repeat itself, it also shapes your individual and collective identity too.

A nation that was historically very important may conserve a sense of pride and ambition that its members take on as well.

If a culture has gone through many hardships, they may identify with a sense of perseverance and strength. 

Things get further complicated when different cultures have different viewpoints on the same period of history that they share.

For example, cultures can be in disagreement about who has the right to a certain piece of land. Or, they can have different opinions about who attacked who, or other wrongdoings that are not necessarily related to war.

When this “us against them” kind of mentality comes into play, people begin to identify much more strongly with other people in their own cultural collective. 

10) Art and literature shapes how you express yourself

Art and literature can be incomprehensible to the average high school student, but if we examine it with a bit more patience we’ll begin to see how it shapes our collective identity.

In Spain, for example, there is unbelievably impressive art, both in the form of architecture and the more traditional form of art in paintings. It surrounds you everywhere you walk. 

When I talked to the locals, I noticed they felt a sense of pride over their beautiful heritage. (As they should!) They have developed an appreciation for art, and even study different architectural forms in school.

Meanwhile, I barely even knew what the “baroque” and “gothic” styles meant before visiting. (Thank goodness for tour guides!)

Literature has an enormous impact too, of course. Because people tend to study the same books throughout school, they build a common set of cultural references.

In America, for example, most people are familiar with the novel 1984, and my friends often referred to it when making jokes or drawing comparisons. 

When I tried this with a Spanish person, I just got a confused look as they asked me what is it that happened in the year 1984. 

Shape your own identity 

Some people think of their identity as having been chosen entirely by them. 

But by now, it will be clear to you that culture is a significant force that shapes you in more ways than one. Above, we explored 10 of the main ones, and how it shapes who you are through collective identity.

So you can see that your identity is not really “yours”, but also the result of the way you were brought up.

However, it is certainly not something static. It continues to evolve as you go through life. 

Your beliefs, habits, and behavior have been affected by things you may not have realized — and perhaps even in ways that you wish you could change.

The good news is, you definitely can. 

All you need to do is become aware of, and break free from the invisible framework that you’re currently trapped in. 

It’s simple, but very difficult to do. After I did a lot of traveling, I discovered new perspectives on things and no longer wanted to identify with certain aspects of my collective identity.

But this is something we’re ingrained in ever since the moment we are born. I struggled for a really long time to make shifts, but I was too immersed in my identity to be able to see it with perspective — like a fish that doesn’t realize it’s swimming in water. 

I needed another pair of wise eyes to help me out, and thankfully I found them in the shaman Rudá Iandé.

It started when I watched this eye-opening video, where he explains how he himself went through a similar experience.

I could really identify with his belief in empowering ourselves and forming a pure connection with who you are at your core.

And by following his teachings, I was finally able to make progress and embody the person I wanted to be. 

If this is what you’d like to achieve too, click here to watch the free video.

Even if you’re well into your personal growth journey, it’s never too late to unlearn the myths you’ve bought for truth!

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Picture of Tina Fey

Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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