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  • Cultural Differences Definition

  • Cross Cultural Differences

  • Cultural Disparities in Communication

  • Diverse Cultures Across the Globe

  • Illustrative Examples of Cultural Differences

Home > Resources > What Are Cultural Differences: Explanations & Examples

What Are Cultural Differences: Explanations & Examples

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.

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 shaped not only by its own characteristics (its cultural traits) but also by its exclusions. Skateboarders do not surf and surfers do not skateboard. Christians can consume pork, whereas Muslims do not. Danes speak Danish as their primary language, not Swedish, whereas Swedes speak Swedish, not Danish.

Cultural Disparities: Differences in cultural characteristics among societies, such as diverse music, diverse language, diverse religion, diverse cultural norms, and more.

Cross Cultural Differences

Humans are part of numerous major cultures and countless sub-cultures. In reality, we all identify with multiple cultures simultaneously (such as being Swedish, Baptist, a surfer, and a fan of Italian cuisine — that'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 initial observation of someone dissimilar to you typically involves visual cues (unless you have visual impairment). Visible indicators of cultural distinction are prominent and significant in upholding cultural identities. These indicators comprise:

Dress (Clothing, Jewelry)

Clothing choices and styles serve as universal indicators of culture. While items like tee-shirts and blue jeans might signify particular cultures or hold no cultural significance at all, other garments are distinctly symbolic. Wearing jewelry featuring a religious emblem, for instance, conveys one's affiliation with that specific religion.

The manner in which you wear a piece of clothing can also hold significance. Do you sport a baseball cap? If yes, which direction is the visor pointing? How high or low do you wear your pants in relation to your waist? These are the cultural signals that can differentiate one culture or sub-culture from another.

Body modifications

Tattooing, scarring, and other alterations have been part of human culture for thousands of years. Besides their continued presence in certain traditional societies, they have also become symbols of various subcultures in contemporary Western societies.


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

Beliefs vary among people from diverse cultures. While some cultures may view this as insignificant, others consider a distinctive set of beliefs that differentiate their culture as crucial. This distinction is a defining feature of both religion and specific political cultures.

Politically liberal and conservative cultures have different beliefs concerning crucial matters like views on bodily autonomy, personal freedom, the importance of family, and more.

Different Cultural Mores

Skaters and surfers likely do not have distinct core beliefs. Nevertheless, they are distinguished by their cultural customs. They possess particular codes of behavior, regulations, and standards that they must follow to be embraced as members of their subcultures.

Every culture and subculture has its own unique set of cultural norms. Even if two cultures appear similar on the surface, their distinctiveness becomes apparent when they outline the requirements for becoming a part of their community.

Various Actions

Actions taken by individuals within a culture serve as a significant indicator of their identity. For example, Spanish speakers speak Spanish, skaters engage in skating, and surfers participate in surfing. Religious individuals partake in religious services, create and visit shrines, read sacred texts, observe holidays in specific ways, and so on.

Assorted Items

For individuals seeking acceptance within a particular sub-culture, such as rock-climbing enthusiasts, possessing the appropriate gear is essential. It's not just about any gear, but rather about having the right brands. This principle applies to various cultures, whether one is a member of a motorcycle club or a symphony orchestra.

Diverse Environments

Cultural landscapes play a crucial role in defining the identity of many cultures. These landscapes are often created or modified to the extent that they become distinctive markers of a culture's identity. For instance, the cultural landscapes of southern France are distinctly different from those of the beaches in New Jersey, USA.

Cultural Disparities in Communication

All the aforementioned differences involve some form of communication, whether through verbal language or other means of conveying ideas. Consequently, each culture possesses its unique communication system, which may be referred to as a language, code, slang, lingo, dialect, creole, patois, pidgin, or even a system of musical notation.

Diverse Cultures Across the Globe

Many cultures, though not all, are geographically distinct, meaning they are present in certain locations and absent in others.

One notable exception is the realm of Internet cultures and sub-cultures, which are increasingly prevalent. While some of these online cultures are linked to physical cultures in the real world, others exist solely in the virtual domain.

Online gaming cultures are considered 'placeless,' decentralized networks of players dispersed globally. However, there may be some geographic distinctions due to restrictions or bans on Internet access to certain games in specific countries.

Cultural Spread

All cultures originate from a specific location, and the process by which they disseminate is known as cultural diffusion. Depending on the duration and mechanism of diffusion, cultures may undergo changes as they spread to new regions, or they may largely retain their original characteristics.

This outcome is influenced by various factors, such as the culture's strictness in upholding traditions, the steadfastness of its beliefs, and the level of communication between the original and migrated members.

A culture with rigid traditions and limited interaction with outsiders may undergo minimal changes, even if its members relocate to distant lands. Conversely, if the diaspora group is largely disconnected from the homeland community, a form of cultural "drift" may occur as migrants encounter new influences and make distinct adaptations from those occurring in the homeland.

Illustrative Examples of Cultural Differences

Human culture lacks a universal standard or norm; instead, it comprises various social groups that may establish norms or standards, sometimes in an effort to eliminate or diminish cultural differences.

This phenomenon was evident in Communist China during Mao Zedong's era and the Cultural Revolution, where diverse cultural expressions were suppressed. Individuals were compelled to conform to standardized attire, speech, and thought, while cultural landmarks were demolished.

However, cultural differences inevitably resurface. While existing cultures may not be entirely eradicated (as seen with the revival of China's folk religions), new cultures continue to emerge.

Gender Identity

In Western societies, subcultures based on gender identities beyond the traditional male-female binary have become prominent and contentious in the 21st century. This trend is particularly notable in countries like the US and UK, where personal expression faces fewer legal or social constraints.

Nonetheless, the portrayal of gender beyond conventional male and female norms is not an exclusive innovation of the Western world. Various ethnic societies across the globe have embraced more than two gender identities, with two prominent examples being the Bugis people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and the Muxes of Oaxaca.


Bugis culture recognizes five genders: cis men, cis women, trans men, trans women, and intersex or androgynous individuals known as bissu, who commonly serve as shamans. With a population of three million, Bugis society follows Islam and has upheld its intricate gender framework for centuries.

Despite this heritage, the unconventional gender roles, especially those of the bissu, have resulted in discrimination from various external entities, including Dutch colonizers and the contemporary Indonesian authorities.


In Oaxaca, Mexico's southern state, the Zapotec culture prevails. Transgender men (assigned male at birth), known as Muxes (pronounced "moo-shays"), have achieved significant cultural acceptance throughout Mexico, despite facing historical marginalization. Muxes commonly adopt traditional female roles and attire, and form relationships with both men and women.

Lukas Avendano, a Zapotec anthropologist and performance artist, is also a muxe. Through his work, he sheds light on the challenges experienced by muxes and transgender individuals in Mexico, who historically have encountered significant discrimination and violence.

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