The first time my wife and I went swimming at the beach together, she wore her swimmers and I wore my bathers. If dad had been there (which would have been really special), he’d have worn his togs.
If someone asked me how best to describe culture, I would tell them to look in their backyard. “Yep, there it is, culture, with all its nuances, in all of its majesty, ingenuity, security and absurdity. It’s all going on there mate. Check it out.”
My simple definition is: Culture is – What, how, why, and when you do what you do.
What better way to really understand how culture is formed and how it evolves, than to reflect on your own family? The first culture any of us are a part of is that of our family. All things going well, it will be the culture that we most positively align with and we can really engage in. That’s why in great companies people describe their colleagues as their work family.
When a family is formed, whatever its modern and diverse structure may be, it brings together cultures from two families. There are always differences, some insignificant and some vast. Remember the culture clash in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding (extreme case in point). Modern families and companies are very alike. The blends of gender, race and culture make them really interesting and exciting and at the same time, often challenging.
Culture is the sum of a million parts
Imagine trying to record your family culture in detail, to pass it on to another generation, perhaps several generations later. It would be a long and arduous process. The sheer detail of what, how, why, and when – fashion, food, language, manners, time-tables, sports teams, music, education and hanging out the washing (check out my post from last week on The Cold Wet Clammy War).
The evolution of culture is the result of reconciling the push and pull of ideas, ideals, habits and so on, until dominance is established. As it is in a company, innovation, growth and development result from the introduction of something new and result in what might be miniscule or gargantuan shifts in culture – again, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
A Family language is formed
One of the most striking evolutions of culture is language. One of the first notable signs of a culture is a collective language. Families form their own language. Communities, companies, organisations all form their own language as well. These days, company dialects are differentiated mostly by acronyms. ‘When acronyms go mad’, I just call them A’s.
I remember growing up washing my face with a flannel only to later discover my wife used a face washer. My term described the objects material and hers its application, like her swimmers. Some quick research tells me flannel was more an American term, and as it did in my house, it died a slow death. Not much use calling a piece of Terry Towelling – a flannel. Regardless, we adopted her face washer.
How about the comical naming of anatomy to cater for the very conservative relationship or the arrival of children? Children whose every public conversation in their first few years of talking, is fraught with the danger of humiliating the parents. And then there is the euphemising of the language of all things bathroom. That’s a secret language in every family.
Grandparents become the masters of many cultures, speaking the language of several sub-cultures, treading a diplomatic minefield with every visit. They even carry varying titles from home to home, depending upon the culture, all the while performing the same role as Queen versus Empress, Gran versus Nana. They are like the global managers.
It’s all about reconciliation
Sometimes of course, we struggle to reconcile two cultures and although this is more evident on an international stage, it plays out right in the family home as well. There is nothing a spouse likes more than when his wife suggests, “why don’t you do it this way, that’s what Dad does”, moments after he’s flattened his thumb with a hammer, or conversely, he tells his wife when the baby won’t stop crying “you should do it that way, mum never had this problem”.
It’s no different in the workplace.
I don’t know, we just do it that way, Ok?
Have you ever experienced that moment of frustration, even agitation when a new employee makes a derogatory comment about a process or procedure in the place where you’ve worked for many years? You’re thinking, “What’s their problem, this is how we do it here”. Then later, in a carefully guarded conversation with yourself, you ask yourself, “why is it we do it that way” and then you consider, “mmm, maybe it would be better if we did it their way”, and finally you settle with, “but I won’t give them the satisfaction” and you move on with a smug look on your face
There is lot’s more to say about culture on another day. Please feel free to share and comment on some of the funny aspects of culture at your work and home, I am really looking forward to reading them.