What is the difference between culture and tradition? Is there a difference between the two?
These two words are often used interchangeably, but they each carry different and important meaning.
We live in a truly connected world. You can access any culture you like with a swipe of your finger. You can learn about traditions you may never experience firsthand. But without understanding their meanings, you may end up culturally appropriating and offending, even if your intentions are to honor them.
Tradition vs. Culture: Why The Japanese Remove Their Shoes
Around 2,300 years ago, Japanese people began to wear shoes to aid in rice cultivation. They wore them to keep their feet dry during the long, humid, and wet days they spent outside. And so, before entering the house each evening, they would remove their shoes to avoid bringing any dirt inside.
But cleanliness was only part of the reason. Another came down to manners, and how they considered their house a sacred place.
It’s suggested the origin of this came from the raised floor storehouse used to house the rice paddies during the Meiji period. The amount of rice paddy you collected represented power, so bringing dirt into the storehouse after a long day was seen as an insult to the work you did.
A tradition began that’s still practiced throughout modern-day Japan. Not just in people’s homes, but in certain restaurants, schools, temples, and even tea ceremonies. The tradition has become a part of Japanese culture.
What is Culture?
Culture is the collective term to identify certain ideas, customs, and social behaviors. It represents a group of people or a society, combining their knowledge, beliefs, morals, and laws.
For the most part, culture looks at the big picture. It’s a general term that represents the whole. It includes everything from the food you eat to the TV shows you watch, as well as art, language, fashion, dance, and more.
When you think of the Japanese culture, for instance, certain foods, movie genres, dances, art, and language likely come to mind. Culture is what brings an entire group of people together. It not only represents what you do but also what you believe. It’s deep-rooted into your personality and behavior, often resulting in shared morals and values. It’s a shared sense of community identity.
In short, culture is everything a certain group of people has amassed throughout their history. It’s a way of life that you learn through immersion as you experience it each and every day.
What is Tradition?
Tradition, on the other hand, is a more specific term. It’s often used to describe an individual event or practice, such as removing your shoes when entering your home.
Traditions are ideas and beliefs passed down from one generation to the next. They’re not rules, but rather guidelines. Each family within a culture can have its own unique traditions while sharing other common ones.
For example, each year on the 3rd March many Japanese families celebrate their daughters, wishing them happiness and success. This is a shared tradition that goes back many generations. It isn’t a law you must abide by, but most families celebrate it because they consider it a part of their culture. Yet different families may celebrate it in different ways. A tradition to go to a certain location, for instance, or to present a specific gift.
In short, traditions present a link to the past. They allow you to honor your ancestors and pay respect to certain aspects of your culture.
The Difference Between Culture and Tradition
The main difference between culture and tradition is that traditions describe a group’s beliefs and behaviors that are passed down from one generation to another. Culture describes the shared characteristics of the entire group, which has been amassed throughout its history.
For example, the tradition to remove your shoes when entering a home in Japan is a shared custom passed down from parent to child. It’s rooted in good manners, as is the tradition of bowing to those you greet. These honor Japan’s greater culture, which largely centers around showing respect.
Culture acts as the underlying thread that connects you to everyone else, with traditions acting as the events and customs to honor these.
We witness this not only in Japan but across every country in the world. In Mexico, for instance, the importance of family plays a huge role in its culture.
There are certain traditions that honor this. The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a widely celebrated tradition that honors those that have already passed. Yet other traditions, such as the role of friends and family at weddings, and huge family get-togethers for birthdays are customs that center around the importance of family.
Each culture has certain traditions that help honor it. They play a huge role in the culture’s continued evolution, yet no tradition alone can tell the whole story.
Why Knowing The Difference Between Culture and Tradition is Important
The words you use matter. Understanding the words you use matter.
As we become more connected as a species, we get glimpses into how other people live. You can open your phone right now and learn about a culture you’ve never experienced firsthand. Maybe you feel guilty about certain aspects of history, or simply come across a culture you love and one you wish to honor.
The traditions of these cultures give you an opportunity to do just that. But without understanding the bigger picture, your appreciation can turn into cultural appropriation.
You’re part of a culture yourself, although you may take many aspects of it for granted. Much of it exists beneath the surface, but you can be sure that it plays a large role in the person you are. It impacts your beliefs and values. It affects your personality and character. A person’s culture is sacred.
We share an incredible ability to learn about different cultures these days. It’s a gift. It’s easy, for instance, to pay homage to Mexico’s culture by celebrating the Day of The Dead. But are you honoring the culture or simply partaking in a tradition you know little about?
This is why it’s important to know the difference between culture and tradition.
Traditions are often the most externally-facing parts of a culture. They show the personality, color, and heritage of a culture. They help you know what to do and when (and what not to do). They give you a glimpse into a person’s culture, but to truly understand a culture, you need to spend time listening and learning.
And one of the first lessons is understanding the difference between culture and tradition.
Once you know this you can go beneath the surface and understand the bigger picture. This leads to empathy, respect, appreciation, and the ability to properly honor a person and their culture.
How To Honor a Culture and its Traditions
True understanding empowers real change.
Millions of people are waking up to this as movements like MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and those by the LGBTQ community gain precedence. We’re beginning to think more about what life is like in another person’s shoes.
We only know what we know, which widens the gap of ignorance and indifference. But when you start to understand what you might not know, to try to understand the perspective and experiences of others, and to empathize with them, you lay the foundation for change.
Ignorance fuels so much hate, conflict, and war. Long before bombs and bullets, violence starts in our heads and our hearts, in the words we use, in the beliefs we hold about other cultures and traditions. Understanding the difference between culture and tradition allows us to better understand one another, to empathize, build relationship, and create long-lasting change.