Tag Archives: culture

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.

Company Culture: It Can’t Be Faked

The end of the year, and the nebulous “holiday” season, is a dependable catalyst for a number of potentially socially awkward formalities – company parties, “fun” activities and gift exchanges, most notably. Mileage for these events may vary wildly depending on the given company’s culture. Now, “culture” is an unusual word, and one of the hardest to define in English, but I think Raymond Williams was right in saying that culture is ordinary.

Culture is what is done every day. For a company, this can mean as little as the shared attitude that employees bring to solving problems that affect all of them, or the cooperative spirit that almost imperceptibly guides their work. Culture isn’t even about being the same location. It definitely isn’t about having certain props in your offices or scheduling formalities (outings, parties, brainstorming meetings) out of a sense of obligation. Of course, colocation and events planning aren’t necessarily bad – in fact, they’re excellent outlets for companies that have already built a strong culture, but they aren’t necessarily the best catalysts for creating that type of culture. Having a joyful party won’t turn a moribund operation into a “fun” company that gets work done efficiently and even casually. That transformation – or even just “formation,” since it can be hard to wrest a company off of its current path without drastic changes in personnel – has to start somewhere else.

In fact, attempts to form company culture via outlets that really have nothing to do with real operations or works can have awkward results. They can make employees feel, initially, like the company is actually one that values a relaxed yet professional atmosphere, yet then shatter their illusions and expectations when next Monday’s trip into the office is a reversion to the same meetings-heavy, distraction-fraught processes. A company that has never truly had fun in solving a tough problem or seeing great employees push out great products (these really should be the goals from day one) may, for example, have some odd ideas about how to instill a “fun” culture after the fact. That company may think that aimless office-to-office interruptions and visitations – seemingly indicative of a casual atmosphere – are a way of creating “fun.” I’ve seen it done, and what it actually does is decrease productivity, since interruptions are anathema to getting work finished.

In these cases, culture isn’t being improved because the actual processes of work are either not being addressed or are being changed in an adverse way. Instead, the best ways to improve culture (if you’re in a situation in which it feels like a change is merited) are:

1. Observe your employees. Walk around the office or talk to them one on one. Don’t think of them as subordinates or someone “in a different division,” i.e. someone who doesn’t affect you. It’s easy to look at, for example, the support staff as employees who have no bearing on what “really” gets done, but nothing could be less true – it’s important for product managers and executives to know what is happening on the front lines. See how they speak on behalf on the company and what they think the company stands for – it may surprise you, and in turn give you inroads to make the company stand for something different and better.

2. Be truly democratic. In small organizations, there exists a golden opportunity to let each employee approach her work in her own optimal way. This is real democracy: each employee in your startup (given that they are good employees who have been carefully hired, of course) voting to help the whole company by contributing in the best way she knows possible. There’s opportunity for coaching, dialogue and counsel, too, but this individualistic spirit is at the heart of all startups, really – if it weren’t, no one would have been crazy enough to start it. By contrast, “fake” democracy is democracy done via overlong/overlarge meetings, in which no one can focus after the first seven minutes, thoughtful criticism is suppressed and weak (albeit outspoken) feedback elevated above all else. Keep your meetings short, if you have them, and trust your employees when you can.

3. Aim for the right kind of culture. This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. Aim for a productive culture above all else, a culture in which projects move forward, updates are timely and employees feel valued. A culture of fun will, in many cases, arise naturally from a culture of productivity. After all, fun isn’t about boredom or stagnation – it’s about activity and conversation, both instigators and byproducts of productive work. You don’t have to aim for fun at the outset, in other words; fun will take care of itself, if you have a vision that makes sense and a team that is willing to chip in and make it happen.

-The ScreenGrab Team