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Culture – a fishy explanation!


It is often quite difficult for people to grasp the concept of culture and fully understand what it is, so to help offer a different approach to explaining what it is, here is an alternative (albeit slightly fishy) explanation.

Think about a tropical fish tank. Can you picture that in your head? All those beautiful tropical fish? That’s great.

Now imagine you are watching the fish swimming around, hiding behind the plant life, darting in and out of the little ornaments.

Red fish, blue fish, green fish, orange fish.

Big fish. Small fish.

Spotty fish. Stripy fish.

It’s a beautiful scene – with so much diversity! But what does this have to do with culture? Well, culture is just like the water we have in a fish tank, and we (human beings) are the fish which the water surrounds. Culture is dynamic and ever-changing, and is made up of the shared values and beliefs that we hold. It is also made up of the traditions which we (often unthinkingly) abide by and the etiquette we should follow (which behaviours are accepted and which behaviours are taboo).

In her book Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox discusses English values which we shall use here to provide some explanation to this. Values can be viewed as being principles or standards of behaviour, such as playing fair or being courteous to others. Traditions can be defined as being a mode of thought or behaviour which are followed by people from generation to generation, such as May Pole dancing or Guy Fawkes Night. Finally, etiquette sets out what behaviours are regarded as correct or appropriate in everyday life, such as saying please and thank you, or not burping out loud.


Okay, so back to the fishes.

Forget the tropical tank but instead imagine a cold water tank. The breeds of fish are different. The temperature is different. The type of plant life may be different too. So is either one of these tanks better than the other one?

Of course not! They are just different environments that different fish live in. In this sense, we humans are the same. Different people live in different environments (i.e. cultures), with different values and beliefs, traditions and etiquette.

Think it sounds simple? Well it’s not…

Just like fish in a tank surrounded by water, we too are completely surrounded by our culture. However, most tropical fish cannot be kept in cold water (and vice-versa), and so it would be hard for them to understand how life is for the other fish, as they have not experienced the “culture” in which the other lives. In us humans, when exposed to other cultures it can cause us bewilderment, confusion and distress (often termed Culture Shock). But it’s not all bad news!

Betta fish (also known as Siamese Fighting Fish) are just one breed of fish that are able to survive the transition from tropical to cold tank environments. And once again, us humans follow suit. When exposed to other cultures, we have an innate ability to adjust and when we do, our lives are often enriched by the tapestry of cultural delights that await us.

So the next time you are going abroad, due to work with someone from another culture, or have a chance to make a new friend, remember this little fishy story to ensure that your cultural encounter goes errrrrrrrrrm… swimmingly.

(Sorry – I just had to make a fish pun).

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1 Comment

  1. Nor says:

    Thanks for the fishy explanation. Unforgettable.

    For your interest, read a concise definition of culture I wrote in a slightly different style:

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