Shared understanding: convention and agility

I find myself doing it almost without thinking: the international sign of ‘can i have the bill please?‘ is to pretend to write with one hand in the air, whilst giving the waiter or waitress a raised eyebrow glance. It’s unspoken because it relies on no common verbal language, no need for me to speak Chinese as i sit here in the restaurant, because we both understand the context.


We are efficient communicators: through words, movement, music or touch. When showing sympathy, a light touch on the arm reinforces our empathy and compassion. It can be used to signify friendship if we clasp the upper arm more firmly when greeting someone we know.

But these conventions are not accidental, they are still learnt behaviours. Whilst pretending to draw the bill works for me most everywhere i go, it’s only because i’m not the first person to try it. It’s developed as a shared language through cultural transmission and the simple efficiencies it offers.

So conventions can spread widely, but also change rapidly. They are not static.

Conventions can work against agility: take learning design. So often we just do what we’ve always done. The ways we structure courses, run workshops, send emails, all are subject of convention, a parody of themselves.

But the Social Age is about agility, in how we learn, work, lead and change. Ask yourself the question, ‘what am i just doing out of convention‘, are you just waving your arms in the air, or are you being agile?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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5 Responses to Shared understanding: convention and agility

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