I think about culture a lot.
Not just now, but for as long as I can remember.
It may be because I was adopted and never knowing my biological roots that I’ve felt like an ethnologist in the field: seeing interactions and relationships from an objective standpoint: an observer. And this is here, in my community, and for nearly sixty years.
This role of ethnologist, however, is one I apparently cannot turn off.
The Cultural Creep
At a recent breakfast, my friend Randy shared an article that concluded that one needs to avoid using long and complex words while being interviewed for a job because doing so may perplex and prejudice the interviewer against you. Without missing a beat, I saw this as yet another example that our American culture is continuing to widen the strata between classes. (And not an article in how to interview better to land that job.)
In the 60’s and 70’s, it was my observation that you could be poor economically, but that we all strove to be at least intellectually equal. My generation could go months without a haircut and years without new jeans, but we eagerly grabbed for scholarships and grants to go to college. And everyone read.
We all read and, many times, the same books and periodicals. Here, the gap was breeched. Doctors and lawyers and professors talked with social workers and construction workers and students.
The Internet promised us access to more intellectual property, but instead we were flooded with pop culture. What adjustment hasn’t occurred is that any posting is now weighed as equals to properly vetted scholarly texts. Sadly, on the Internet and in a growing number of media, discrimination isn’t exercised and now we are witnessing more parochial divisions among Americans since the time where credibility was weighed by simple literacy.
For your consideration I’d like to suggest a not too long and complex word to describe this cultural spread creep: Insidious.
The Importance of an Open Mind
In wanting to be open minded, a trait we all aspired to at one time, I see where many people have become, well, a little simple minded. Searching for the absolute, the black and white, I find many people over looking the varying shades of gray that color most issues.
Reading books rip off the filter of this kind of monochromatic thinking. Again, I’m talking about literature and properly researched papers. (Unlike this blog and many others; please accept this part of my post as a rant.)
I do think, however, that the newest generation to enter adulthood, Generation Y, is more socially conscientious than previous generations before, especially my own. (Rant, rant, rant.) I do appreciate this generational attribute of openness and I want to believe that all the prejudices that held America from true enlightenment will become a footnote (versus a foot trail) in our history. Meanwhile, please don’t rule me out as a job candidate simply because my favorite word is culpable.
Culture, defined by one of my favorite anthropologists, Marvin Harris, are patterns of behavior, thought, and feelings that are acquired or influenced through learning and that are characteristic of groups of people rather than of individuals…In other words, a culture is the total socially-acquired life-way or life-style of a particular group of people. Culture, Man, and Nature (p. 136).
In order to be an effective leader, I analyze the culture of the team or clinic or organization I am being assigned. I do this by watching people perform their duties, how they interact with one another, and then by asking lots of questions. I ask not only questions to those who are part of the culture, but also to those who depend on a group to produce a service or product. I find learning this new culture is continuous and often fun. I see that generational differences are a significant variable that can’t be ignored.
Before long, I can “go native” regardless of the educational and licensed differences. I find that once we share a common language and common goals, getting things done is much easier.
However, cultures are dynamic and there are times when cultures need to change to meet the goals of the organization. A few management experts predict that it takes no less than four years and with focused repetition to change a work culture. If steady and continuous education and support fail to change the culture, there is the “cleaning house” strategy. That “nuclear” approach, however, comes with a price.
Peter Drucker, world renown management consultant and self proclaimed “Christian-conservative anarchist” and social-ecologist, in 1973 and then in 2008, warned us that there are deep ethical implications with making changes simply to meet short-term and the egocentric needs of a manager.
Business enterprises are organs of society. They do not exist for their own sake, but to fulfill a specific social purpose and to satisfy a specific need of a society, a community, or individuals. (Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, p. 37)
But if (a man) lacks in character and integrity—no matter how knowledgeable, how brilliant, how successful—he destroys. He destroys people, the most valuable resource of the enterprise. (Management, p. 287)
Your self-anointed ethnologist wants to remind you managers to do your research, ask lots of questions (without assuming to know the correct answers), and be careful when analyzing cultures different from your own. If you keep an open mind, you will enjoy learning about another culture and invariably something about yourself, too.