What Does It Mean To Be Cultured?

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Buying a very closed system Apple computer and putting a Creative Commons sticker on it is culture? Hmm...
“It is not part of a true culture to tame tigers, any more than it is to make sheep ferocious.” – Henry David Thoreau

If I met you on the street (or at BlogWorld, see you there?) and asked you “What does it mean to be cultured?” how would you respond?

Rabah tweeted that I’m cultured because of my wide and varied musical tastes. I know he was just joking, but it got me thinking.

Is that culture? Being into artists like Death, In Flames, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Trick Daddy, Merle Haggard, Lady Gaga and others?

I don’t fully agree with that.

It’s a topic that comes up a lot with travelers. Like you’re automatically cultured if you’re a traveler. Or if you’ve been to a lot of countries you’re more cultured than someone who’s been to less. Well, that’s just not true. Because I believe if someone is cultured they’re not prejudice or racist. And let’s just say I’ve run into lots of close-mindedness over the past year amongst very well traveled individuals.

So, what then? Is there a good definition for a cultured individual?

According to Dictionary.com it means enlightened; refined. As most text-book definitions go, that’s pretty meaningless.

I know what cultured doesn’t mean to me.

If I hear someone say “I hate [insert style of music/art/books/etc]” I feel like that’s someone who’s not cultured. I understand not liking a particular artist, piece of art, or thing, but not liking a whole genre or group is impossible to me.

Personal example: I don’t like reading fiction, but I give it a shot regularly. Lo and behold, a few years ago (after a recommendation) I read The Alchemist and I’ve been hooked on Paulo Coelho books since. I give other fiction books a try if they come highly recommended as well even if, on the whole, I dislike fiction.

Another example: I used to say I hated country music. It’s true, I hated what I had heard up to that point. Then somehow, some way, I heard Merle Haggard. Now I can say I love country music, even if it is just Merle Haggard at this time. :)

So am I saying I’m cultured? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I curse a lot and I wear the same clothes almost every day. Do cultured people curse? Do cultured people wear incredibly plain, not particularly nice-looking, clothes? Or maybe cultured people only curse when the public is not watching? And maybe being cultured means you wear nice clothes in public, but in private it’s sweats and Ts? You know, put on a facade.

Mostly, I’m saying I’m ignorant of a lot of things and open to a lot of things.

What’s My Definition of Cultured?

Respect what you’re ignorant of.

If we all followed that rule we’d live in a much happier place.

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Note: I’m on a train right now. (The magic of WordPress scheduling!) I’m not sure when I’ll get back online so comment moderation might be slow. But please do leave a comment if you have something to say and we’ll chat when I can. :) Also, no Sweet Saturday update this weekend. It was always meant to be occasional, but we went 18 straight weeks! :)



61 COMMENTS

  1. To be open and interested in other cultures then those in your immediate vicinity would be my definition of cultured.

    Back in the days it would be how well spoken and read one was or their knowledge of the finer or international arts.

    Culture can be found anywhere. Music, dress, language, books, films etc. Culture is also limitless so you could never really say you are cultured as it implies completion of something.

    The opposite of culture would probably be close minded or narrow minded.
    I think we are probably all guilty of both.

    Nice article.

  2. This reminds me that the words we use, the definitions we have and the way we use language are all just signposts to what we really want to say. They are not the end, but just stepping stones to the true meaning.

    Phew. I’ve just been listening to some Finnish music (Egotrippi – Matkustaja) and writing an article, so I’m in writing mode, and I can’t stop.

    Btw, I really love your taste in music. I used to only like hard rock and heavy metal (oh, good ol’ teen days), but now I enjoy pretty much everything from classical to reggae to even pop music.

    What is cultured? I don’t know. I just want to experience stuff and have fun ;)

    Keep rocking!

  3. Love the site Karol (and your name, even if it is misspelled :)

    Cultured to me is the opposite of the ugly American. Someone who is cultured is open to learning and accepting different cultures. Most Americans go to safe places when traveling, like Cancun or London, stay in white-washed hotels, and treat locals like shit. Cultured Americans go to places like Romania or Thailand, stay in hostels or homes, and are fascinated by learning about and from the locals.

  4. I always joke I get my culture from yogurt. Having said that, I can hold my own if I have to in “polite society”, but I am not comfortable there and enjoy being my own renegade … albeit a cultured one :)

  5. It seems rather uncultured and prejudiced to judge all of any group as in the ‘Ugly American’ comment. There are people in all countries who are not “open to learning and accepting different cultures”, who only go to ‘safe’ [i.e. familiar] places.

    Isn’t that what Karol is talking about when he says “but not liking a whole genre or group is impossible to me.”

  6. I was thinking about this very subject today when I came across a few people who didn’t know what a matador was. I accused them of being uncultured, but afterwards I had to ask myself what this really meant. “Cultured” definitely seems to be one of those loaded words, doesn’t it?

    After some thought, I defined it as being open and aware of cultures and traditions outside of that which you grew up in, but your article has prompted me into refining that somewhat. Thanks!

  7. How was the train ride? We share some similarities in terms of cursing, fiction, and country music. I got used to cursing since being a kid from the hip-hop/gangsta rap music. Don’t really like country music except for a few artists for their vocals and the instrumental acoustics. Fiction is a great tool as a sleeping pill.

  8. I always say “Good art is good art” because a certain work’s style or genre should have no affect on one’s ability to enjoy it.

  9. To cultivate humanity by being open minded, knowledgeable and respectful.
    I don’t necessarily think you need to have traveled. I know people who never traveled farther then 50 miles from where they were born and yet they are very cultured, even if they had no interest in going anywhere or learning about anything outside their world.

  10. Your definition of cultured is spot on. It’s tough not to pass judgment on things that you don’t really understand or aren’t in to but a truly open minded person will resist. It’s a challenge!

  11. To me, being ‘cultured’ is simply trying new things, even if you’re scared of them. It could be travel, could be food, could be music. Trying the things you believe you’ll dislike from the start – that’s my definition of being cultured.

  12. I believe “cultured” traditionally meant that one was educated in the proper etiquette of the English or Western European culture. Dare I say that it’s pinnacle was during the English Victorian era?

    I think the word is obsolete these days. It’s like a straight-jacket. Trying to confine an ocean of subjective feelings, beliefs and thought into a single word. Like a food fight for thought.

    Great post. I really should have gotten more sleep…

    • I like it Glenn. “Like a food fight for thought.” :) It’s true, it is incredibly subjective and difficult to put into a box.

  13. Jonathan beat me to the yogurt joke :} Seriously, though, cultured is refined, developed, thought through. To be cultured is conducting yourself as if other people and ideas matter, so you make the effort to learn about them, experience them, compare them, understand them. To be cultured is to have appreciation for things beyond your immediate needs or environment. Traveling helps with this, but it is not the only way.

    I agree that a cultured person cannot be racist or prejudiced, no matter how refined or knowledgeable in other matters.

  14. The whole time I was reading this, the word that was coming to mind was ignorance. Of course you got down to it at the end. While “cultured” has a bit of a snobbish tone to it in some ways, I think it is the opposite of ignorance. Accepting of other cultures, differences, and ideas is something that people who come from a place of ignorance do not generally do. But cultured has that snobbish connotation of people looking down their noses at “the little people” and putting on airs.

    I think that’s why the attraction to the James Bond type is so strong. He’s the guy who is comfortable no matter where he is: be it a third-world village or a ballroom gala in a tux. He just fits in comfortably. He’s world-traveled, but he speaks to people on every level of “class” the same.

    I would categorize you as cultured, even with a hole in your shirt.

  15. I love the words that people have used to try and define, or redefine, what it means to be cultured. Whether or not we consider ourselves cultured, I think striving to be a respectful, open-minded, knowledgeable, and accepting person is a good way to live.
    And chances are, if you think you’re cultured, you might just be pretentious!

  16. To me, the first test of a so-called “cultured” person is first; if they even listen to music, than next, what they like to listen to. You can start to tell if the person you are dealing with is learned, without insulting them. Reading is also a very good indication. It’s a much better question than “what school did you attend?” and my favorite: “what do you do for a living?” (I experience, you?) Cultured, as many other people said above, has many more meanings than just your taste in music.

  17. When I hear ‘cultured’ I think of ‘encultured’ which means brainwashed, as far as I’m concerned!

    I think the type of ‘cultured’ you’re referring to means being above all culture, open to any and all cultures, respecting every human endeavor for what it’s worth, as nothing’s perfect, and we all produce and create standing on each other’s shoulders.

  18. That’s a solid definition Karol. I’ve always disliked how travel is automatically associated with being cultured. As you said, there is no shortage of close-minded people who have spent most of their lives exploring the world.

    But of course, we don’t really need an all-encompassing word to describe the concept of respect, other than respect. One of the problems of using the term ‘cultured’ is that it leads some to believe that they are more advanced or better than others and then the concept loses its meaning.

    And the idea of ‘respect’ certainly doesn’t care what clothes you wear. By the way, Merle Haggard changed my thoughts on country music as well!

    • Thanks Earl. “One of the problems of using the term ‘cultured’ is that it leads some to believe that they are more advanced or better than others and then the concept loses its meaning.” I agree.

      Mama tried … :)

  19. I loved your definition of the word. I have lived all over the place and pay attention to global news and that sort of thing, and I’m constantly frustrated since I moved to South Dakota.

    So many people here live in a bubble of what specifically defines their own world. Nothing outside of their daily comings and goings has any meaning or value. I think for some people that’s a perfectly adequate existence, but it’s not for me, and I have a hard time connecting with them.

    The word ‘uncultured’ has frequently crossed my mind, not as an insult but defining them as people who are not open to anything that is new or different from what they already know. At the same time, I love the culture that is specific to South Dakota, so I am trying to find a balance for my love of this place and my need to connect to people who are tapped into something bigger.

    This was a really engaging post & I enjoyed reading the comments. Thanks.

    • Thank you for sharing Maggie. I’ve thought a lot about what you stated as well. Is someone who lives in a bubble cultured? I think maybe the answer is yes. Depending on if they’re not outwardly disrespectful of things/people that are different.

      • I agree. There is one person I know like this. He is very knowledgeable about his own culture/bubble, but not interested in anything else, yet he is not disrespectful. So I would consider him cultured.

  20. Means something (someone) has been acted on by external forces and transformed from something of lower value to something of higher value.

    Like sour milk is transformed into yogurt
    or a grain of sand is transformed into a pearl
    or a tourist is transformed into a traveller
    or you are transformed into enlightened
    by my words
    because you see now that cultured is not something to be
    but something to become
    that the process is more important than the result
    just as the journey is more important than the destination

    happy travels, my little pearls

  21. I think that being cultured means being able to put what one is seeing into some sort of framework, to be able to explain why it is significant now or perhaps why it was for its time. What is or was fresh and new about it? What is there about it that can change my thinking? I think the previous remarks about being free of prejudice can apply both to travel–to being open to people with a different way of life–and to reading–being open to ideas, whether they come from a 17th-century writer or from a 21st-century blogger. Culture means being able to discern whether there is something here I can appreciate or use.

    We’ve all seen tourists who are not cultured: they flit from one famous thing to the next without really knowing what they are seeing. Ideally, learning enriches travel, which brings about a renewed interest in learning.

    I don’t agree that London is necessarily a “safe” place to visit. It can be, on a superficial level, but as an American who has spent several months there over 20+ years, I would say that there are ways of thinking there that are as foreign to mine as those of an African might be. If you immerse yourself in a culture, you find things that are common and those that are different. Culture helps you to understand why things are the way they are.

  22. Karol, what a fascinating question. I’m surprised to see a number of comments equate being cultured with social standing or, in your post, with nice clothes. Gertrude Stein who was certainly cultured by many standards wore the same dress (or same style, she may have had more than one) every day. Clothes did not make the woman. Nor do manners and etiquette (but thats another post). One can occupy a Henry James like world of refinement without having the financial wherewithal of his characters. Being cultured is not manifested in clothes and material things.

    Now, on to the question of culture. I like to look at it from the point of view of a related word “cultivate.” To be cultured, for me, is to cultivate (as an on-going activity, perhaps “tend” as in “tend to a garden” is a better word) an interest in artistic and intellectual endeavors/achievements. Artistic and intellectual because they are an expression of our common humanity. So, one may not like all types of music but one is willing to listen beyond the familiar and to ask questions. Nor does it have to be arts or thought of the so-called “great civilizations” such as China or Italy. Any and all art and thought are equal candidates.

    This interest definitely helps us to understand people, places and things better. In that respect I’m in full agreement with Tracy above. It definitely gives us a framework that helps us better understand. Speaking of understanding, another part of “being cultured” is seeking to learn the customs of those people you’re around. Whether they be South Dakotans or members of the Miao minority in China. Uncultured tourists are not only those who flit from monument to monument without understanding what it is a monument for or to, but also those who take no interest in learning how relationships (such as shopkeeper and customer) work in the country they’re visiting.

    Being cultured definitely entails respecting other people and their ideas but respectfulness alone is not enough to be cultured. I know people who have little interest beyond getting up in the morning, going to work, and coming home. They are definitely respectful of other people and cultures but they have no interest in them. I think that James Bond can feel at home anywhere is precisely because of the interest he takes the cultures he finds himself in.

    I think, after this long-winded attempt, that, in short, to be cultured is to be interested in the world and the works of people and to maintain that interest.

    I’m afraid I’ve rambled on a bit. I hope you won’t mind too much.

    • Thanks Charles. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I was taking the stance of “perceived culture” as far as the clothes/manners comments. As in, do you judge someone based on outward appearance or based on the person behind the mask (however tattered & torn or crisp & clean)?

  23. To be cultured is to have a deep insight into the meaning and purpose of things without regards to biases or prejudice tendencies.

    …..So that the more a person has a deep insight into the meaning and purpose of a thing or things without regards to biases or prejudice tendencies, the more cultured that individual is from others.

  24. I’m not sure if I agree with your definition of what “being cultured” shouldn’t be. When someone says they don’t like a genre of music (or when I say it), that one means to say that the they don’t like the conventions that particular genre uses. Like for example, I do not like pop music. The catchy hooks, simplistic structures and generally repetitive lyrical content bore me. I’ve listened to a sizable sample of pop music to come to that conclusion so I know I’m not outright dismissing pop. I like Shakira and Oasis, but that’s about it.

    In the end, tastes are subjective, and one can’t be blamed for disliking a particular style or genre. One taste’s is the product of both environmental factors and genetic factors (in my opinion, idk if science can back me up), so when someone dislikes a genre, even after many listens, calling them uncultured would be like calling a plant close-minded because it dislikes nitrate-rich soil.

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