Chapter 2 - Influences Subchapter: Societal forces

Cultural values

Key points

  • Cultural values are shared beliefs and judgements about our behaviour. If you think something is good or important, you value it.
  • Different groups can hold different values, and we can find ourselves in groups with values that conflict with our personal values.
  • Values affect our relationships because they inform what we want from other people, and what we think is acceptable behaviour.
  • Look at the values you’ve inherited from the groups you belong to and ask if they align with your personal values.


What are cultural values?

You probably have an intuitive understanding of values: if you think something is good, or important, then you value it.

Cultural values are values that are broadly shared by everyone in a particular group—which could be a family, religious community, workplace, school or even an entire nation.

For the purposes of this conversation, we’re mostly interested in the larger scale groups, particularly broad community values.

These values can shape our approach to relationships and decisions, but we’re not always aware of what these values are, where they come from or how they influence us.


We can look at cultural values as a specific type of social norm, in that they are shared beliefs and judgements about our behaviour.


What do YOU value?

An illustrated couple with a baby in a pram and a dog on a leash are surrounded by pictures and societal forces – laws, cultural values, social institutions, human rights.


Consider these questions on a scale of very important to not important at all. For you:

  • How important is family?
  • How important are friends?
  • How important is leisure time?
  • How important is hard work?
  • How important is achievement?
  • How important is tenderness?
  • How important is obedience?
  • How important is self expression?
  • How important is racial equality?
  • How important is gender equality?


What do Australians tend to value?

There is no definitive list of “Australian cultural values”—and you’ll often see arguments in politics and the media over what values are Australian and un-Australian.

But one way to get a sense of what Australians as a whole value is through something called the World Values Survey. This is a big international research project that asks lots of people lots of questions in lots of countries—with a goal of trying to better understand what different people in different regions of the world think is important.

The survey maps nations on two major dimensions of values:

  • Traditional vs Secular-rational
  • Survival vs Self-expression


Traditional values emphasise the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion and euthanasia. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.

Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion and euthanasia are seen as relatively acceptable.

Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.

Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, acceptance of migrants and refugees, gender and sexually diverse people and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.


According to the latest survey, Australians as a whole strongly lean towards self-expression. This means that if you were to pick any random Australian, the chances are they will value personal freedom, social equality and civic participation—all self-expression values.

On the other hand, we are pretty evenly split on traditional vs secular-rational values: we have people who think traditional values are really important, people who think secular-rational values are really important, and people who prefer blends of both.


None of this is absolute

It’s really important to remember that surveys and models like this only produce generalisations.

  • There are lots of variations among individuals within the model, and lots of other possible models for categorising values.
  • Only a small sample of the population is asked to respond to the survey. In Australia, the survey is based on 5000 people, all over 18.
  • And values change over time, as you can see by watching this animation of survey results over the last 35 years.


You can inherit different values from different groups

As with social norms, different groups can hold different cultural values.
Since we can belong to many different groups in our daily lives, and since we generally like to fit in and get along with the people around us, we can sometimes find ourselves holding different—even contradictory—values in different situations.


For instance, if you work in a hospital you might be all business, because many actions are life or death, but at home you could be the sloppiest person around.
Or maybe when you’re by yourself you love watching heart-warming videos of animals being rescued and rehabilitated, but when you’re with your hardcore competitive friends you’re all trash talk.


How do cultural values influence the Field Model?

As with social norms, cultural values can be an almost invisible influence on the way we negotiate consent:

  • They inform what we want and expect for ourselves and others.
  • They influence how we might say yes or no to any particular decision.
  • Shared values can create cohesion in a relationship, while contrasting values can create conflict.
  • If we belong to a group that holds different values to our own, we can feel conflicted about which set of values to follow.
  • And since values involve a trade-off (such as survival vs self-expression), we can sometimes find ourselves enjoying the benefits of a set of values, but also struggling with the costs.


For example

  • For example, you might grow up in a really emotionally open and expressive culture. You then expect that people close to you will say whatever’s on your mind and will respond to you when you do the same. But then if your partner says they want to hear less from you, you might take offense and be hurt.
  • Or you might be part of a group that is super supportive of everyone in the group but loves to bully anyone outside the group. And you feel like it’s wrong, but part of the way people in the group get status for themselves is by “conquering” outsiders and you worry that if you push back you might be pushed out.
  • Or you might be part of a group that thinks it’s really important to be sexually active—that it’s a sign of maturity, desirability and status. And you agree with those values, you’re fully part of the group, but you also find yourself into sexual encounters that are supposed to make you feel good, but instead they leave you feeling bad and you don’t know why.


What do we do?

It’s worth taking some time to identify your own values, and those of the different groups you belong to, especially big ones like national cultural groups.

Do you notice any conflicts between values in the different groups to which you belong? Is this a problem for you? (Only you can answer that!)

How do these values affect your relationships? How do they influence what you want and expect in a relationship? How do they influence what you say yes and no to?

This process will help you understand some of the drivers behind your own behaviour and may also highlight areas of conflict that you might want to think about resolving.