Jargon Dictionary #3: “Culture*”


Culture is a tough nut for technical sorts to crack. It meaning is surprisingly resistant to both empirical inquiry and algorithms. It is the absolute opposite of bromides such as “universal,” “human nature,” and “globalization.” It has no time for these Anglocentric concepts, and it eludes easy definition.

In a way, culture is all there is. The countless actions we perform without stepping back (how we dress for work, how we frame questions, what we eat, when we laugh, what we set out to accomplish, what we read, how we write) are culture’s byproducts. For any idea to gain traction, it must have cultural influence.

Even “revolutionary” movements such as the Industrial Revolution didn’t take root everywhere, for largely cultural reasons. It wasn’t that long ago (all said) that a Chinese emperor rejected Britain’s industrialism as useless, sending a surefire salvo in a culture war that precipitated actual war. In this way, culture is both nebulous and deeply material.

Just look at soccer. Ill-defined American concepts of “masculinity” and “transparency” have long made soccer – a game that Americans imagine to be played by effeminate Europeans who flop in the penalty box to decide the outcome – an outcast in its sport pantheon. The result? The USA – the most scientifically advanced country ever, with the most well conditioned athletes in the history of mankind – can barely compete in a sport that, on paper, it should be able to dominate.

Raymond Williams described culture thusly (emphasis added):

“We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of lifethe common meanings; to mean the arts and learning–the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind.

I put an asterisk in the title because  while culture is definitely jargon – thrown all over the place as a vague job perk and something to be bantered about at holiday parties – there is meaning worth freeing from all of that pretense. Accordingly, it is distinct from truly vacuous terminology such as “the cloud” and “innovation,” which do not encapsulate concepts with anywhere near the scope or import captured by “culture.”

Examining culture

  • Jargony definition: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.” (via Brian Chesky of AirBnb)
  • Use it in a jargony definition: “We can offer a laid back culture, ping-pong tables, free beer, competitive salary.” (via me, off the top of my head)
  • Non-jargony definition: see Raymond Wiliams excerpt above
  • Use it in a non-jargony sentence(s): “Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings.” (via Raymond Williams)

I had a long response planned to Chesky’s post on Medium, “Don’t Fuck Up the Culture,” but Scott Berkun already said basically everything I wanted to cover.  He covered some important and rarely aired sentiments such as:

  • “Culture” does not have to imply “passion,” especially not for work
  • Culture is not static and will naturally evolve even at the societal level, let alone the organizational level
  • What most companies call “culture” is actually the whims of the CEO, whom Berkun rightly labels the “chief cultural officer.”

Moreover, he points out that culture is not some bullshit resource that can be vetted by typical management processes. There is no meaningful big data process for culture, no metrics that are going to yield real insight about what it is and why it emerged.

A startup that I used to work at prided itself on a “laid back” culture blah blah blah, but it never showed said culture existed in everyday operations. When good employees went through rough patches, either at work or elsewhere, they were not taken care of. The whole company seemed to punish anyone who asked questions or tried to think outside of some ridiculously constrained box in which the app existed (I hate “think outside the box” as a metaphor since it has no equivalent in the physical world, but Jesus, the box in question here was like one tile of a Rubik’s Cube).

See? Culture is what you do, not what you wrap up in jargon or pepper throughout one of many “motivational” speeches at Monday lunches. This part of culture is what makes it so tough to deal with – despite having the airs of some wispy, infinitely dissectible subject such as “the cloud” or “innovation” (or “progress” or “technology”) it underpins even the most base, physical actions. Culture determines if roads get built or if  war is fought or averted. Plus, whom a company hires or fires – whom it leaves in potential desperation or allows into the fold of prosperity – says WAY more about its culture than any boilerplate in its job posting. Culture makes the intangible tangible.

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