Urgent Evoke

A crash course in changing the world.

Secret of Change Lies in Respecting Culture

If I had to pick one 'secret' that I think is essential for any change to be successful it's 'Don't Fight Culture'. I think trying to fight- or wish away- culture is the prime source of frustration and failure that dooms a large number of well-intentioned and potentially very helpful projects.

To say that culture can't be fought is not to say that culture can't be changed. But change comes about through broad participation- and that kind of participation is not going to happen in a project that is seen as disrespectful or threatening to the essential that are embedded and encoded in each culture.

In addition to dooming a project to failure, fighting culture is totally unnecessary. No culture survives which harms its people in essential ways. All cultures are designed to support activities which contribute to the group's survival and well-being - or have in the past. It is very unlikely that an outsider will be able to see the myriad ways in which cultures connect and support their people. And changing them without understanding these things would be the height of folly- even if it were possible.

Views: 29

Comment by Katherine Morrison on March 26, 2010 at 5:57pm
Great post Sarah, you said all that I wanted to say, only much more succinctly, a skill I am trying to cultivate but not really succeeding at haha.
Comment by Michael Jaggernauth on March 28, 2010 at 6:16pm
what if the culture has a negative impact on the progress of the people as a wh***? What if that culture is the source of their problem, i.e. the mindset they exist with. Please give me your views on this question, it would be greatly appreciated. thanks.
Comment by Sarah Shaw Tatoun on March 28, 2010 at 8:17pm
Michael, I had a very long reply to your comment which the Comments file wouldn't accept-- so I've given it its own post here. http://www.urgentevoke.com/profiles/blogs/follow-up-to-my-secret-of...
Comment by Maarten Pakvis on March 30, 2010 at 11:44am
Like the post, especially because you made your point about a hard subject in clear cut language.

Would love to discuss this subject with you!
Comment by Sylvain Ratelle on March 31, 2010 at 11:15am
Sarah, I support your point of view, cultures are treasures to protect!
Comment by Chris Ke Sihai on April 13, 2010 at 12:08pm
Michael, while it's true that a culture may contain elements that are counter-productive, the point is that fighting the culture is not the answer.

I've spent years in Taiwan trying to persuade people that I know more about my language than they do and that's why they pay me to teach them. Arguing, using logic even, is not an effective way to effect change. You have to work with what you have, and respond to what is there rather than react in pursuit of the way things "ought to be"

I learned that from my Taiji teacher, after resisting him for years. Then it suddenly got a lot easier to avoid being hurled to the ground. Epic fails started to look like tentative wins, and I'm sure that with another ten (probably twenty) years of practise I'll be able to consistently work with this alien culture to achieve goals that please both of us.
Comment by E Owen on April 20, 2010 at 8:51am
Hi Sarah, thanks for the comments on culture. I would agree that fighting culture would be a frustrating exercise, and I also like that you point out that culture can change. My research on children's travel seems to suggest that it is the cultural perceptions of what is appropriate that lead to certain behaviour. But a key caveat of that, as you mentioned, is that culture changes over time and its important to get people to think of how they'd like to live, not just how things are at the moment (as this game is inspiring many people to do!).
Comment by Sarah Shaw Tatoun on April 20, 2010 at 10:47am
Maartan and Sylvain-- thanks very much!

Chris-- I had the same frustration teaching on Taiwan years ago. Living there was one of the experiences that formed my view of culture, because it seemed like every time I began to develop a simplistic, 'this aspect is good, that aspect is bad' perspective on the culture, something would happen or I'd meet someone who turned things on their head and gave me a completely different way of seeing things.

Thanks, Owen. You might also like to read my follow up post. In that one I make it clear that, to me, respecting culture doesn't mean just accepting things as they are. Not only do cultures change-- sometimes very quickly-- but they are all filled with contradictory elements-- that's one reason they are able to adapt. If you take the time to really learn about a place and people I think you will find things within the culture that will support the changes you want to see.
Comment by JWR on April 24, 2010 at 4:35am
Sarah, great post, and I liked your follow-up post as well.

I agree that we shouldn't try to work against cultures we don't fully understand. Especially since in most cases culture change wouldn't be a primary goal, and can harm whatever we are trying to accomplish.

However, in the case of cultures that I'm immersed in and know very well, I've often felt that I really wanted to change aspects of that culture. There are one or two things about American culture I'd love to change, and I've worked for companies whose corporate culture I'd have liked to change.

There certainly have been times my own country's history (the US) where our culture contained aspects that our current culture now considers wrong. One extreme example is the acceptance of slavery. Do you agree that there may be particular aspects of certain cultures that should be changed? If so, do you have any thoughts on what one can do to successfully change culture?
Comment by Sarah Shaw Tatoun on April 24, 2010 at 2:56pm
Thanks, JWR. I would say that changing our own culture is not only our right, it's often a responsibility-- and sometimes even necessity for our survival. We are our culture-- and it becomes whatever we become.

It's interesting that you give the example of slavery as something that nearly everyone now agrees was wrong-- because the story of how that changed is so illuminating. It started with a small group of mostly Quakers. Although the religion's founder, George Fox, had preached against slavery from the start, it wasn't until 1733 that they began an open, public opposition to the practice. There were many other major social changes going on at the same time-- not least being the establishment of the first elected governments in history and the very gradual acceptance of the then radical ideas that we take for granted now: universal education, property rights for women, right to due process, the right to be judged by a jury of one's peers-- etc., etc., Partly for these reasons-- and partly because it was hard and uncomfortable for people used to being looked after by slaves to give them up-- it took a very long time for opposition to slavery to grow to the point that people were willing to literally fight for abolition.

But other cultural changes have gone much more quickly. Once the principle is established it can be built on. It was impossible to imagine in my childhood, when my mother was going off to picket the whites-only theater in the Southern university town where we lived, that we would ever have a black president. It was equally impossible to imagine that the Soviet Union with its gulags and hapless satellite countries would ever fall. Both the proponents of Civil Rights in the US and the opposition to the Soviet totalitarians were a tiny minority when they began. They were often beaten or imprisoned, sometimes even killed. People who supported them were snubbed and sneered at.

The secrets to bringing about massive social change are pretty well known from the Quaker example, and that of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others. It requires a lot of courage, a willingness to open about and take the consequences of breaking unjust laws, and an understanding that allowing oneself to be provoked, or to use underhanded methods to achieve even the best of aims is to help the opposition.

In some ways, though, these are the easy changes to bring about. The much harder change to make is to recognize our own unconscious biases and to change our own behavior. It is far easier to recognize that an attitude or belief is wrong than to really confront and examine that attitude or belief in ourselves. And without that recognition and confrontation the mass social changes end up being a mere idea to which people pay lip service-- at least until enough people decide to take the principle seriously-- and make it reality.

I guess what I'm saying is that the way to 'fight' culture is to dig deeply into it. Examine your culture's history and beliefs and I'm convinced you will always find some examples and principles to build on. I've been trying to do this with my 'Quaker Challenge' -- asking people to build on the Quaker tradition to reinvent once again the way we do business-- to bring it back in line with the better side of our heritage and traditions in the US. I would love it if you or anyone else would take up the challenge. So far no one has answered.


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