The Story of Culture

As part of #WorkingOutLoud on the new Storytelling work, today i am considering ‘The Story of Culture’.

We talk about culture within Organisations as though it’a a ‘real’ thing, largely because we ‘see’ it around us, and we feel it acting upon us and others. Despite this, there is no ‘culture particle’: simply architecture, infrastructure, and the rules written by human hands.

Nothing acts physically or physiologically upon us, and yet we are ‘acted upon’. Culture, whatever it is, is a very real force, even if not a quantifiable or consistent one.

This language would lead us to define culture as ‘belief’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘story and belief’. And that may be enough: we have an emotional connection to stories, and those stories both enable, and constrain us, largely depending upon whether our actions conform to, or fracture, the narrative.

There appear to be very few, if any, clear relationships of the constituent parts of culture: nothing specifically deterministic – there is no cookbook of culture that appears to work in every context. Or to put it another way, there is little discernible predictive ability around culture, except in some very gross and general observation: so, e.g., bad behaviour can break culture, and people can ‘learn’ culture.

Instead, we perhaps create our own culture in the moment, held within our own stories, and then trade or try to share that with others.

If we look more broadly, to the ’values’ that Organisations often deploy alongside ‘culture’, or to ‘create’ culture – the relationship becomes even more vague.

It seems certain that words do not create culture – although they may create a story. So calling a culture ‘honest’ does not make people honest. And calling it ‘fair’ does not make it fair. Fairness, and honesty, are both judgements, not hammers.

And yet, the story of culture is written: most people have no difficultly articulating stories of culture – both the aspirational ones that they are expected to belong within, and even the tribal ones that they are invited into. In a very real sense, in every day, culture acts upon us.

There are historical stories of culture: again, most people can describe cultural change – how things got better, or are getting worse. They can state whether they are ‘for’ or ‘against’ a culture, and they can typically identify people who ‘live’ it, or who deny it.

So what is the story of culture?

A common consensual delusion, or a scaffolding and framework of behaviours? I’ve used both definitions in the past, and perhaps they are simply sides of a coin.

There are probably broad threads of the discussion: in general, people differentiate between ‘lived’ and ‘stated’ notions of culture. They may not agree what they are, but in general we understand that ‘statement’ alone does not generate behaviour reliably – although it may to an extent, part of the time.

We understand that cultural change is often difficult – which indicates that we are invested within culture – and we understand that simply changing the formal structure does not inherently change culture.

It may seem odd that something deemed so central to an Organisation, indeed to society more generally, is so broadly defined, and so widely interpreted, and yet there are many things like this: fairness, justice, purpose, trust… it’s a long list.

In fact, we could switch out view around: very few aspects of the Organisation are truly quantifiable, or even ‘real’ in the sense we may understand it. And yet they act upon us each and every day.

Whatever the story of culture, it seems pervasive, and powerful. And probably as unique as every individual that tells it.

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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