Culture, remarkable

What is culture? Can we change it? And should we?

A whole stream of insights on this arising from an innocuous-seeming tweet this morning from Shawn Callahan:

Culture is when something happens and it’s not remarkable.

Culture is what we don’t see. It becomes invisible when it works well for us, is so everywhere around us that it disappears into the background of how daily life works for us:

An ordinary street in an ordinary town, that itself is part of ordinary English culture. So ordinary and everyday to us that, yes, it often seems utterly unremarkable. All kinds of things that we just don’t see, assumption upon assumption upon assumption. Water, power, communications, all hidden beneath the street. Shops built not only out of bricks and glass and concrete, but also all of those hidden assumptions about transactions and trade and money. Roads built on assumptions about traffic, and different types of traffic intermingling. Daylight and nightlights; security-cameras and street-crossings. An odd culture of apology, too: even the buses sometimes have signs that say ‘Sorry: Not In Service’. Culture.

Culture is also in what isn’t there. No guns, for example. No shotgun-toting guards outside every store, as I’ve seen in some other countries elsewhere. No gates around the town: the old town walls do still exist, dating right back to Roman times, but the last time they were used for real was almost four hundred years ago. So unremarkable now that the bullet-holes from that time on an ancient hotel are remarked upon as some kind of attraction for tourists.

(It’s true that there’ll be barricades in town today, but that’s for an annual half-marathon race. Which might be remarked upon by some, but the fact that it’ll take place at all is interestingly unremarkable.)

Yet if culture is ‘that which is not remarkable’, often it only becomes visible to us when it doesn’t work well – when its hidden assumptions don’t work well for us, even if they maybe do for others.

And those hidden assumptions in a culture can be a trap in other ways, because they can allow us to hide away in an echo-chamber of self-delusion, dangerously disconnected from the harsher realities of Reality Department.

So how do we avoid that trap? And how can we be sure that that our current culture is effective – that it meets everyone’s needs, now and onward into the future? If Reality Department is changing around us, how can we change culture to match, so that can best continue to meet those needs?

The short-answer that we can only change a culture if we can see it. We can only change a culture if we can make its hidden assumptions come out of hiding.

In terms of social-linguistics, we would do that by making culture ‘problematic‘. Which is a bit misleading, because culture isn’t a problem. (Unless it is a problem, of course.) Not a problem that can be ‘solved’, at any rate.

So perhaps a better way to put it is that we bring those hidden-assumptions out into the open whenever we remark on what is ‘not remarkable’. Once they are out into the open, we then have choice about what we choose to assume, about what we choose to change.

And a culture that can meet people’s needs would indeed be remarkable.

In short, to make and maintain a remarkable culture, we need to remark upon that which is not remarkable.

An insight to which you might remark, perhaps? 🙂

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2 comments on “Culture, remarkable
  1. Marc Lankhorst says:

    Culture may not lend itself entirely to rational argument, observation and change. Some parts of it may be deeper-seated. Take perhaps the strongest manifestation of culture, religion. No manner of rational discussion will convince a religious person to become an atheist (or assume another faith, for that matter). The things we learn at a young age, including culture, but also e.g. language, become deeply ingrained in the structure of our brains, and we may not be able to change these at will.

    • Tom G says:

      Oh, agreed, Marc – no shortage of evidence on any part of that. But the keyword there is ‘rational discussion’: there are any number of non-rational ways to change a culture. Story, for example – such as in the role of the minstrels and storytellers in any culture. (Or, in less benign forms, as political-propaganda – I presume you’ve been following the Cambridge Analytica case?)

      We can also do quite a bit through mandated behaviour. To use your example of religion, consider the impact of one simple statement at the highest court of a country, that the law of the land is that religion is a private matter. If that is asserted, then by definition there can therefore be no such thing as a mandated state-religion; that proselytisation on the purported basis that one’s own chosen religion is ‘The Sole Truth’ (and thus that others are supposedly not) in effect becomes illegal; and that whilst we may practice one’s religion however we may choose, it must in no case impinge on anyone else’s choice as to their own belief and faith. That one ‘rational’ statement about behaviour in effect changes ‘non-rational’ culture.

      (Yes, there are all sorts of complications that would arise from that, such as where non-negotiable ‘truths’ come into the picture – I know that, and I really really really don’t have time to go into them here. If you really want to know how far down the rabbit-hole goes, take a long careful look at tools such Causal Layered Analysis, and have a go at applying them in a whole-enterprise context. I’m just trying to illustrate a point here, okay? Leave it at that for now?)

      But before we can even begin to talk about ‘changing a culture’, we first have to some fairly solid idea what that culture is. Such as by unhiding the hidden-assumptions. Such as described in this post. That’s all.

      This isn’t some deep, groundbreaking, world-shattering idea here. It’s just one more way to remind folks that we do have some choices in this, and some simple tricks to help us, such as that tag-line above that “to make and maintain a remarkable culture, we need to remark upon that which is not remarkable”. Best not to pretend that it’s anything much more than that.

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