A friend of mine just asked me about this, so I have lots of thoughts about it. This may be deeper than you need, but here goes: My initial feelings about culture lead me to think of simply a “way of life” but if I think about it just a bit more, I notice that the word “way” connects to the idea of a path or perhaps even a journey – as in “let’s go this way” or “you go your way, and I’ll go mine.” Of course there is a collective nature to culture, so culture is like a collective journey or shared path. But I also get a feeling of boats on a river. Each boat has a certain level of individual freedom, but collectively they are all floating down the same river, so there is a sort of shared movement and common history despite whatever individual movements or relationships there might be among or between the individual boats. And of course rivers have branches, so some boats follow one branch while other boats follow other branches, so shared histories diverge and thus different cultures have very different characteristics.
Getting a bit more philosophical/esoteric, I also get an image of the individuals in a culture existing like cells in body. Different cells belong to different bodies, but each body defines the context – the role, function , or “meaning” – of the individual cells. The “essence” of a brain cell is different than the essence of a liver cell, and these differences in essence are correlated with their different roles – but these roles, in turn, spring from their function in the overall body – and this is what culture does; it is the larger “body” or context that defines a great deal of our essence as conscious individuals. Just as there is a degree of literal truth in the old saying “You are what you eat,” I sense a degree of literal truth in the idea that we are, to a significant degree, constituted by the culture in which we live. Our bodies are constituted by the materials we ingest, and our minds are constituted by the “psychical material” that we ingest, and the contextual meaning of this “mental food” comes from or culture. I want to emphasize the word ‘constituted’ because it is a lot stronger than just saying “influenced by” – it gets at the idea that our culture becomes part of our actual, deep, essence.
As for examples from my own life…well…since I am a philosopher, a great deal of my life IS thinking about stuff like this, so in a way, I have been speaking from my own life this whole time. For various reasons stemming from my interest in philosophy of mind, I do not believe that there are any such things as isolated (or isolatable) conscious individuals. A major part of the essence of a conscious individual is the context which provides the systems of meaning-relations that constitute the very nature of consciousness. Consciousness, I believe, is culturally constituted. Without culture there is no consciousness, and without consciousness, there are no selves, no egos. Without my consciousness there is no “me” as the individual that I am. But I know you are asking for something more personal, so let’s see…here is one concrete example: I was raised in a culture that values monogamy and devalues alternative lifestyles. For various reasons I have protested against this cultural mainstream. To borrow from my boats/river metaphor, you might say that my wife and I have spent a lot of time “swimming up stream” on this issue. Part of our role in life – one of the labels defining who we are as individuals is our membership in “alternative lifestyles”. But notice that this definition of who we are – this aspect of our identity – only has meaning in the context of a culture that values monogamy. Even tho we don’t flow with the majority, our lives are still to some extent defined by the flow of the majority – the overall flow of the culture that gives our status as “protesters” the very meaning that it has. We are who we are because of the culture, even when we don’t flow with the culture. It is part of our very essence as individuals, and we cannot abandon this essence no matter how hard we try (or at least we can’t abandon it without losing our selves in the process).
Sorry if I’ve rambled a bit. I’ve taken classes on hermanutics, semotics, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, etc. I don't consciously remember much of anything from these classes (I just don’t have a memory for details), but I guess I must be learning something along the way, cuz me can sure talk big words ;-) I guess you could say that the verbal diarrhea you are now experiencing is another example from my personal life. It is who I am. I am the crazy dude who spouts nonsense all over the place – the one you’d probably be embarrassed to bring home to meet your mom