Saturday, April 16, 2011

Culture- The Way we Do Things

All right, Boys and Girls, the word for this month is “Culture”. Now, please don’t assume we will focus on a new word every month. You know this column doesn’t revolve around any sort of firm structure.

So, what does Webster’s say? Two of the definitions in my 2003 Edition of the New World Dictionary are: The skills, arts, etc. of a given people in a given period: civilization. and A growth of bacteria, etc. in a controlled substance.

At a recent gathering of Human Resource professionals, the speaker I heard was referring to the culture of an organization, and his simple definition was “The way we do things”. He said the culture of a workplace is the set of unwritten rules that really define how the business runs.

For example: a large national chain has developed its own culture based on the hot beverages it serves. Much more than just a coffee shop, patrons learn a new language depending on the ratio of espresso to steamed milk and how much foam should sit atop their chosen drink. Latte, Cappucino, or Macchiato? Which size? Forget small medium or large. It’s short, tall, grande, venti, and even trenta. Part of the attraction is being “in the know”, hip to the culture of the place.

When I was younger, I thought culture meant a symphony orchestra playing at the auditorium, recitations of Shakespeare in the band shell. Those things would certainly contribute to the culture of a community, but every town, every region already has a culture of its own. Most places in the South have a reputation for hospitality, a friendly attitude. We wave and smile at strangers, hold “get-togethers” in our homes.

The South is still trying to get rid of a culture of privilege based on the depth of a person’s complexion, or the particular side of town on which he happened to be born. Some things take generations to shake, no matter how wrong they are.

New groups of people can change a region’s “vibe” too. Our culture is becoming increasingly more Latin based, with Spanish words and Mexican foods becoming more and more a part of our daily lives.

So, we see how the skills, art, etc. of a given people can influence our culture. But what about the other definition? A growth of bacteria in a controlled substance. Some things that come along might be unwanted, like bacteria. What do we do with them?

One culture change that I can take with a grain of salt is the coming and going of fashion trends. I don’t worry too much about the kids who allow their trousers to sag, or the girls who show more skin than they should. All of that comes and goes, like the jeans I wore until they were ragged, and I sewed on patches, then dismantled them and turned them into a makeshift skirt.

A recent addition to the culture of Arkansas is the possibility of actually winning big in the lottery. “What would you do with a million dollars?” doesn’t seem like a completely ridiculous question anymore. We actually give it some thought, and our answers show what is important in our lives. But we recognize that in order to pay those big prizes, there must be many, many losers.

Another recent trend in our culture is that we have information literally at our fingertips everywhere we turn. We don’t have to wait for the morning newspaper, or even for the evening news to find out what is going on. We get updated on our computer screens, even on our telephones. We can follow posts made by people on the other side of the world as they literally live the news.

How do we keep from viewing these new things as bacteria- a threat growing in a Petri dish somewhere? It’s all about the stable environment.

Our parents have been called the “Greatest Generation”. They were raised in times of financial hardship and war. We, the “boomers” grew up with hope and optimism. We were taught that anything was possible. What can we contribute to our culture in this time of financial and geological upheaval? Maybe our message is one of respect, tolerance and focus. We can draw on the way we were raised, with patience and faith. We can help them step back and find something to smile about, some hope to get them through. We may not feel wise, but we have survived many changes in the culture, and we can show them that they will, too.