Am I Cultured?

 

Royal Opera House (Photo: londonist.com)

Royal Opera House (Photo: londonist.com)

Although I was not born into high culture, there is no question I’ve always aspired to it. Not for the status, but for the knowledge.

How would I know if I was a cultured individual? I’d need a checklist like this:

  • Well-travelled and feels comfortable with people anywhere in the world
  • Well-spoken and can spontaneously refer to significant people, places and events during everyday discussion
  • Can speak and read several languages
  • Has knowledge of world geography, history and politics
  • Has knowledge and appreciation of visual arts, music and literature
  • Enjoys wine and fine dining

How do I rate?

Well, until 2008 I had never travelled outside Canada and the US, and since then my travel list has only expanded to the UK. But if I relaxed at a resort in Havana every Spring Break, I’m not sure if I’d be any more cultured. I doubt I’d feel comfortable everywhere in the world. I like my creature comforts. I wouldn’t bring a box of Shreddies with me to Tokyo, but I probably wouldn’t eat raw eggs over rice for breakfast, either.

I have a reasonably good knowledge of significant people, places and events. However, I have very little talent at working it into conversation. I have high school French, and I can make myself understood, but I’ve never been fluent. My geography is not bad, but my command of history is limited. The areas in which I feel more confidence are literature and music, with arts at least a strong interest. I could choose a bottle of wine for friends at dinner, but I wouldn’t try to eat an artichoke in public.

High and low culture in one volume!

High and low culture in one volume!

I probably score higher on the “culture scale,” if there were such a thing, because of my education and reading. Through them, I grasp a lot of cultural references. If Kahlo, Karsh or Kael came up in conversation, I would have some context. I am happy I studied Theatre, English, Philosophy, and Russian Literature in university. I’ve read a lot of books, seen a lot of movies, and listened to a lot of music. If I’ve had a cultural awakening, it’s been gradual, as I was exposed to more art and current events and food experiences over time.

Maybe when we think of cultured people, it’s the ones born with a silver spoon who come to mind – those whose parents travelled with them, and sent them to private schools, and raised them with the Suzuki violin method and a nanny with good enunciation. I am not knocking that kind of privilege – you can use it for good in the world!

Of course, the majority of the world’s population doesn’t travel or read for pleasure or eat at restaurants. My definition of “cultured” is definitely a Western/White/European construct. It seems you don’t get recognition for your wisdom if you know how to forage for edible plants, or if you can make a living from scavenging valuable metals from trash heaps. Obviously we set a priority on what knowledge is socially acceptable for us.

Louis XIV Armchairs (Photo: 1stdibs.com)

Louis XIV Armchairs (Photo: 1stdibs.com)

I do admire people who can do culturally-cool things like navigate NYC as easily as their hometown, or identify Louis XIV furniture, or know when to use a runcible spoon. But I also admire people who drive a standard or play outdoors with their kids every day!

I risk being perceived as a high-falutin’ snob because I don’t watch TV, never know YouTube celebrities (Boo who?) and don’t eat at McDonald’s. But I can live with that! One thing I don’t like is anti-intellectualism. Just because you can quote Shakespeare doesn’t mean you’re artsy-fartsy and out-of-touch with real folks! I especially dislike it when politicians make fun of “the liberal elite” (which would be 90% of Canadians, LOL!)

Rom and I had a chat and agreed on our new definition of a cultured person: someone who enjoys other cultures, adapts to their environment wherever they are, learns from and respects others, and uses their knowledge to put others at ease.

And if they own a Tibetan mastiff or a Tag Heuer watch? We won’t hold it against them!

How do you rate yourself for arts and humanities knowledge? What is your snob factor?

41 comments

  1. There are so many different ways to come at this – Donna and I are dilettantes and in New York everyone is an expert – but often in a very narrow field (e.g. they see every opera at the Met but they would not go to a Fado or a Flamenco performance). We would like to be cosmopolitan and erudite but more often we feel like there is too much in NY to keep up with and we choose things to do based on variety (opera, chamber music, folk music, world music, museum show, documentary film), and we don’t have the time or money to do everything that looks promising.

    The thing that is difficult for us is to try new things, sort of like trying not to listen to in the music you liked in your 20’s over and over again. Or to go to something because it will be “good for us”. For us being open to new things is what makes us cultured; our fear is to turn into the couple we once sat next to at a concert of late Beethoven quartets – the man was listening to a football game on an earphone, and the woman he was with slept through most of it.

    • I love your Beethoven example. Doing something to be seen doing it – now that is the opposite of cultured! I live in a small city with a limited number of cultural events, but still too much to keep up with. However, there are key events that all “discerning people” would attend, and they would be likely to come up in conversation, so there’s a bit of peer pressure to keep up. Like you, I choose based on variety, rather than focusing on one area (such a subscribing to the symphony or theatre). I would like to think I try new things but I’m sure I could do better!

  2. Love your definition of cultured. Think, or hope, I qualify.

    My snob factor? Some people think I’m a frightful snob. I don’t care about sport (and in Australia that is considered un-Australian). There’s much about popular culture I don’t concern myself with. I mainly watch the govt , non-commercial TV station and listen to the govt radio station. (Meaning I don’t watch most reality TV shows and any soaps or anti-intellectual current affairs shows – except the latter for a laugh). I go to the theatre occasionally. All this puts me in a much smaller demographic. And, yeah, I don’t eat McDonalds either. And I’m a bit green and a bit of a socialist.

    Our governments of both sides criticise the liberal elites too (call them Chardonnay socialists, or latte-sipping elites or the chattering classes) as if those things above (which fair and squarely put me in the Chardonnay socialist group, though I don’t drink Chardonnay) make you un-egalitarian.

    Like you, I’ve read lots of books. At uni I studied Australian, Middle ages English and US history, politics and English lit. But Mr Sans is actually more knowledgable than me on history and current politics because he reads and pays attention to the press. I know more about literature because I read a lot.

    Conversely when it comes to music, my tastes are quite low brow. Hate opera, even light opera. Not a fan of classical music, though I know a bit because my mother used to listen to it.

    I have travelled – the usual European backpacking trip that lasted nearly a year in my 20s. Ad have also travelled to the Maldives, Singapore, NZ, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. And, as money permits, will travel more.

    Funnily enough, I can’t stand the inner-city where the latte-sipping elites congregate. Too pretentious by half. And they mock or look down down on the suburbs. But if everyone is bohemian and alternate, how can anyone be an individual? (Reminds me of the song by the Dandy Warholes, as well as the line from Life of Brian.)

    While many of my choices and preferences may make it easy to say I’m a snob, I’m really not. I don’t look down on anyone but will mock pretentiousness.

    Sorry, seem to have got carried away and written an epic here!

    • For an older person, I like to keep up with the hipsters and I feel quite comfortable with my latte in the urban core. Living in a bachelor apartment with cockroaches in order to be inner-city, not so much! My goal is to always enjoy downtown and to never avoid it because it’s “too crowded” or “the parking is bad” or ” I don’t like to be on the street at night.” All of those fears would eliminate a nightlife entirely. I can see myself giving up outdoor rock concerts in the rain in the next 10 years, but not going downtown! (I don’t know to what extent you go into the city for events – maybe you are just saying you don’t like the pretentious sheep there!)

      As you know, I am all about rock music. I prefer art house movies over rom coms, though. I get my news online from newspaper sites with only a little supplementation from Yahoo News. Rom is much more educated than I am on philosophy, world religions and science.

      I probably come off as pretentious sometimes, especially the “Oh, I don’t watch TV” spiel, but I will own my snobbery!

  3. Fiona

    I am just tickled pink that you have managed to use “runcible spoon” in a valid context in a blog post!

  4. Fiona

    I have to admit to being wary of the term “cultured”. Coming from a home with a father who was a bricklayer, I’ve sometimes been on the wrong end of the snobbery stick. Not that a ‘cultured’ person necessarily has elements of snobbery. But by definition, being “cultured” means showing discrimination in taste. Coming from a very working class background, I do sometimes feel judged by that.

    That said, nearly everything Lucinda wrote is the same for me. I don’t care about sport and that’s definitely considered un-Australian. I hardly ever watch TV (unless it’s the non-commercial or foreign language stations). I did a double degree in History with a sub-major in French & minor in English Lit (and high-school Italian.)

    But..I do eat at McDonalds, have so far never travelled outside Australia (except to a beach in Fiji.) I especially feel my lack of musical and arts education.

    To me as a teacher now, though, having ‘cultured’ students really is an aspiration, so I’m conflicted. I hope we offer our students the opportunity to have a well-rounded, broad, critical-thinking education, particularly with programs like the International Baccalaureate.

    • I like your point about the teaching of culture. With Link, I was always trying to provide cultural experiences, but I’m sure I inadvertently emphasized all the ones I would have liked to have had myself! And of course I prioritized arts and music over sports. I know I emphasized critical thinking too much, which can add an element of detachment to experiences.

      I still feel uncultured when I speak with people who are well-travelled, or whose entertainment is in the symphony/opera realm!

  5. I am fascinated by your definition (and also amused at the runcible spoon !)!!
    Some of the criteria apply to a lot of not particularly cultured Europeans (imho) simply because of our location and others appear to me to depend on education or generation, so I’m pondering that!
    (Education not necessarily private – I had a private education because I went to an expensive school for free as a teacher’s daughter but also public schools, ditto my children attended both types…)
    Still, lots of food for thought 🙂

    • Hello and thanks! You’re right – I know that even here in Canada, I have stumbled into a lot of my cultural knowledge because of the times I grew up in (British Empire, post-colonial, post-WW2, etc.) It will be fascinating to gauge cultural knowledge 20 years from now within the generation of people who grew up with the Internet, and whose exposure to culture might have been through serendipity (following links) instead of through personal experience.

  6. I feel like I’m in a middle ground and don’t really fit in with the cultured but am also not very mainstream. I don’t drink anything other than water, so can’t pick a good wine or coffee or tea. I’ve only been to Mexico and Canada (for less than 24 hours!). However, I have a degree, don’t eat at run of the mill restaurants, and really enjoy stimulating conversation about politics and world events over gossip and celebrity chatter. I rarely know what movies are at the theaters, but I can talk about some current shows. However, I’ve always aspired to lead a cultured life. I *really* want to be an academic, and that generally goes with the territory. Yet my husband is a firefighter and the culture surrounding that is more country boy over cultured, so our lifestyle really stands out in that crowd. My crowd of friends tends to fit into the cultured category, but I don’t feel like I quite fit there either because we’re not even remotely as wealthy. I think for us too, our age comes into play. I may have the same age of kids as my friends, but I’m a good 10-15 years younger…which means I didn’t get that time to become cultured.

    • That’s a big factor – when does someone have time to get cultured if they work long shifts or have children at a young age? Usually it ends up being after a change of career or after the kids have grown. I feel lucky to work in a library where I can discuss books, movies and TV with my colleagues endlessly, from Finnegan’s Wake to The Walking Dead! I like some celebrity chatter! Wealth does factor in. There might be “pay what you can” nights at the theatre, but that’s dependent on transportation and childcare.Maybe it’s best to think of “getting cultured” as a lifelong journey.

  7. Shannon D.

    Do I consider myself cultured? Ummmm, no not particularly. I have a science degree so I come from a science perspective rather than a humanities perspective. I have always read a lot, however; science, history, 19th century novelists, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, religion, exposés, craft books. Growing up in rural Ohio, my exposure to high culture was limited though not nonexistent. I took ballet as a child though I stopped taking lessons when I told my mother I didn’t like holding my arms up so long! I played the flute in band/orchestra but I mostly listen to pop, eighties and adult contemporary. I went to Mexico on a Spanish class field trip and Canada on a geology class field trip and Niagra Falls. Took a day trip to NYC which was mostly for people who wanted to shop but I did not feel comfortable striking out to find a museum. I enjoy people and other cultures but being an introvert and a rotten conversationalist, I have a hard enough time fitting in to my own culture let alone other cultures! Don’t eat at McDonald’s but I do eat at Arby’s 🙂 DH is a huge movie fan and I like movies also so I see a lot of movies. I don’t mind not being considered high cultured but my ego likes being considered reasonably intelligent!

    • You sound a lot like me, Shannon – I could relate, especially about having just average opportunities growing up. I suppose I knew I gravitated toward the arts when I didn’t hate reading Shakespeare or dissecting poetry in English class, unlike the other students. I spent my teenage years writing poems and short stories and attending drama club. I liked math and sciences but I knew they weren’t my “calling.” Do you identify with geek culture (sci-fi, fantasy, technology)? I do, but since I don’t have the knack for memorizing detail (such as the dialogue of TV episodes), I don’t fit right in to those conversations!

      • Shannon D.

        Lol, yes as a young adult I did identify with geek culture. I have attended 2 Star Trek conventions! I still identify somewhat however I don’t read as much sci fi and fantasy. I loved English class but I had problems with writing. I figured out that part of the problem was back then we were hand writing or using a type writer and it was rather a laborious process as I have a habit of continually revising and changing what I want to say. I did like diagramming sentences though! I just love knowledge, all kinds! I was also in drama club but I wouldn’t have a problem with the artichoke because my mother is from California 🙂

      • I used to go to anime conventions with my kid so I am somewhat familiar with that world. I haven’t kept up very well on my own, though! I am also very fond of grammar 🙂

  8. I love the question, “what is your snob factor?” haha

    I wouldn’t consider myself cultured, but I’ve certainly had more opportunities than plenty of people. My knowledge base is decent enough – US and European history, ancient cultures (because of personal interest), literature (because of high school and college requirements). But I haven’t left the US, only speak English fluently, avoid most classic books/music, attend about one play a year, drink only the sweetest of wines, eat a lot more macaroni and cheese than delicacies, and I regularly read or hear references to people/places/things that I have no knowledge of . . Not sure what that says about me, but I think with the prevalence of the internet, I don’t feel pressured to remember who Brunelleschi’s rival was – I can just look it up when I need it.

    • I really do wonder how our perception of culture will change in the Internet era. I find I’ve “heard of” a lot more things, and it makes me feel like I know about them even when I don’t. But looking up definitions, people, places and events is SO helpful. I can hardly stand to be away from the Internet sometimes because I want to fact-check or get info on stuff All The Time!

      I will probably never develop a good ear for classical music, but I can see myself intentionally learning more about history.

  9. EcoCatLady

    Hmmmm… this is an interesting question, especially where my family is concerned. My father came from abject poverty. He was raised by an uneducated single mother during the depression, but somewhere along the line he decided that the way out was through education and culture. As a result he LOVES all things cultured. Opera, theater, wine, history, literature, fine dining, yadda, yadda, yadda. And he has a great disdain for all things “popular.”

    My mother, on the other hand was born into a wealthy family and spent her entire life rebelling against it. She loved fast food, tv dinners, shopping, movies, television, animals, and stuff… lots and lots of stuff. Sort of what you’d think of as the typical WalMart shopper. Hmmm… I’m seeing shades of my “Grass is Greener” post!

    As for me – I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I enjoy history, science, and good food, but abhor all things that are form over substance. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what anybody sees in opera. Seriously, why on earth would I want to spend several hours listening to people musically scream at each other in a foreign language?

    • Re: your comment above, it’s the spoon that has holes to drain liquid as you serve (ie, if you just want the ‘chunks’ of the curry/casserole. My mother uses the word. She is a snob :p

    • I like some things for their form (and sometimes content) like abstract art. I planned to see a live opera simulcast last year but I couldn’t talk myself into committing the 2.5 hours…

      • EcoCatLady

        I don’t dislike art – I just have a hard time with the pretentiousness that so often accompanies it. But I have lived and traveled in Europe, speak 2 foreign languages pretty well (Norwegian & Spanish) and I also studied French, German & Swedish… and I actually did study Suzuki violin (never realized that was a snob thing), as well as ballet & classical voice. And I have been forced to endure MANY more operas than I care to remember – especially as a child. I suppose Mozart is OK, but there’s not enough money in the world to get me to sit through another Wagnerian nightmare!

      • That is an impressive list!

  10. I think I’m a snob, only cause I realise people seldom own up to snobbery, so I may as well :p I don’t think I look down on people, given my work. In any case, I look down on bad manners and unkindness (both of which can be written off as ‘humour’ to my chagrin)

    I mean I did go to boarding school, travel widely internationally, learnt two instruments (not Suzuki method) so therefore have some knowledge of classical music etc, and my mother is a HUGE reader, which somewhat impacts on me. However, I’m born of a teacher and a banker (started as a teller), so hardly ‘upper class’ beginings. My mother was born with the silver spoon though…!

    Cough cough, I know my way around Paris more and more like my hometown (though only via pub transit, not driving), likewise where I lived in France (Rennes). I also speak French almost fluently.

    But I swear like a trouper (on site only, where I hear it as much, and it makes them know I’m ‘ok’), I eat McDonalds (or Pizza on Saturday night) for dinner. I do watch reality TV shows (esp the ones about renovations!) and I listen to ‘pop’ music and their horrible hosts. I also watch docos on the public TV station, watch foriegn films (less and less in passing years) and listen to the public (Lefty) radio, shop at a co-op, get cranky when printing isn’t back to back etc etc. So really, just a contradiction

    • Ha ha, good for you, Sarah! It’s only when I’m around non-library friends that I realize how “discerning” my tastes are. For example, when I attended high school reunion dinners and my former classmates found out I worked in a library, they said things like, “Oh, I love books, too – I just loved the new John Patterson!” and I thought to myself, “Ack, popular bestsellers!” Similarly, when I go out for lunch I find it best to let someone else choose the restaurant, because maybe they eat at family restaurants all the time and don’t like anything ethnic or spicy. I used to watch home buying, decorating and reno shows for several years but I eventually tired of them and didn’t find any others to fill the gap. I like TV awards shows, like the American Music Awards and the Grammys (the Canadian one, the Junos, is on tonight). And of course you know I go to rock concerts regularly. As far as travel goes, I can only say I’m getting to know London quite well!

  11. I’m pretty certain we are all snobs in one aspect or another. Currently I’m reading a great book on just this topic, “Snobbery: The American Version” by Joseph Epstein. Funny and engrossing!
    Regarding being cultured, I would struggle to define it, but know it when I see it. 🙂
    Mostly I think one needs to have an open and curious mind and “being cultured” will follow.

  12. Lisa

    I just wish the definition of being cultured included knowledge of the natural environment and an appreciation of nature. There seems to be such a disconnect for most people and the chasm between humans and their environment seems ever widening. Maybe I am a bit of an eco-snob…

  13. I go in two directions, sort of. I have been in loads and loads of countries, but have never been out of Europe, like many people my age around here. On the other hand, I rather visit Brighton or London or some small Austrian town with loads of culture around, than sit in a resort in Turkey or Spain or Tibet/Egypt/anyotherfaranddistantcountry, just to tell I’ve been there. I do speak English, German and a little bit of secondary school French, besides my mother tongue Dutch (talking about languages, I’m terrible with having no deadlines, so I’ve only translated one chapter of your book, I’m sorry … ), but that is quite normal where I come from. Everyone speaks at least better English than many foreigners expect. I do like to read a lot, but I feel like I have not read enough by far yet, even as a regular bookwurm. So much to read, so much to learn! I try to keep away from a lot of news, it is a lot of horribleness anyway, most of the time. My history-knowledge has gotten better over the past couple of years. About music, I think I can be quite cultured there, in a way. I can enjoy classical music as well as many other types of music, and I’ve learned to enjoy even metal – which is more ‘real music’ than pop culture music 😉 ask my metal-loathing sister, who was forced to hear my music a lot of times, the poor girl.

    Anyway, my point is, although I’m sure with what I said up here that many people see me as cultured, I feel like I could do so much better at that, and wouldn’t see myself as Cultured – at best as kind-of-cultured. Hm, my reply looks rather silly and long-winded now, but I don’t know how to say it better, so I keep it like this

    • With you location and your languages, you have a head start! I avoid too much news. I read the major stories most days but I don’t like keeping up by the hour. Hey, I am a metal fan too! I mostly like old-school bands like Maiden and Priest, or new bands in that style (like Grand Magus). Rom and I go to a lot of metal shows – we have two this month!

  14. Alice

    Your definition of cultured is almost similar to mine. To my mind, a cultured person has also to be ‘socially civilised’ at the same time.
    I cannot say whether I am cultured or not but I am definitely not mainstream but I don’t put any effort on that. 😛

  15. Pingback: Am I Optimistic? | An Exacting Life

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