What is culture

5th February 2018
What do you do all day?
29th January 2018

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter Drucker

Imagine, one day you’re walking through the town where you live.  A route you walk on a regular basis.  Suddenly a person coming towards you catches your eye.  You recognise them, but can ‘t quite place them.  You’ve seen them before, but you can’t remember where. You wrack your brains dragging up possible connections, to figure out where you know them from before they spot you and an embarrassing conversation ensues while you try to recall their name.  But you just can’t remember them, and it continues to nag at you: “Where have I seen them before?”

Then it hits you.

It’s an old school friend.  Someone you haven’t seen for twenty years since you left high school at eighteen and went your separate ways. No wonder it took so long to dig up the memory!

After exchanging hellos and engaging in a brief chat, you realise that your lives have turned out very differently.  The last twenty years have taken you to some very different places with very different experiences.  You are settled and have a family.  He is single, never married,  with few friends around. He has just moved into town by himself and is starting a new job in a new place.

Your friend doesn’t know many people in the town and from what you can recall he always seemed a reasonably sensible friend at school, so you invite him round for dinner the next evening, in the hope of catching up, helping him out and perhaps rekindling a friendship.

As the next evening rolls around, you prepare to welcome your guest.  You frantically tidy the parts of the house that are in view.  You carefully set the table: cutlery, crockery, wine glasses.  You devise and craft a delicious menu: starter, main course and homemade dessert – orange chocolate mousse!

You ready yourself for some rich food, excellent wine and erudite conversation.  Then your guest arrives – fifteen minutes late, but then isn’t everyone? Pleasantries are exchanged, you introduce him to your wife and you all sit down to enjoy your evening.  Then things get weird. Not good weird.  Uncomfortable weird!

Your guest doesn’t wait to be offered food or to be served, but instead starts grabbing food and filling his plate. Fast. And High! More than half the food is gone before you have a chance to pull in your chair.  When was the last time he ate? Come to think of it, when was the last time he had human contact?  Once satisfied he has “enough” food in front of him, he starts shovelling it in like a starved animal, barely breathing and only occasionally using a fork (the knife is never touched), seemingly unaware that other people are involved in this meal.

He is apparently in technology, although you hardly get the chance to ask him much. He has the ‘gift of the gab’ and doesn’t stop talking for two whole hours, save to swallow the food that he hasn’t already spat onto the table while speaking.

And it’s not just the constant talking it’s the language he uses!  You find yourself hoping your children are asleep and can’t overhear the monologue emanating from the dining room.  Words never uttered in your house before.  Some you’ve never even heard before!

The table manners; the language; the rudeness; the lack of common courtesy; the lack of social awareness. Who is this person?  Was he like this all those years ago at school?

How are you feeling right now reading this story?  Does it make you feel tense? Annoyed?  Frustrated? How would you be feeling if that was actually happening in your home?

It’s quite uncomfortable, isn’t it?  I know the thought makes me feel extremely anxious. I would want it to be over as quickly as possible, but I wouldn’t  know what to do if the situation really happened.

Should I be polite, finish dinner quickly, feign tiredness and usher him out of the house, remembering never to invite him again? Should I perhaps challenge him on the behaviour?  What’s the best and quickest way to end this nightmare?  Ask him to behave more appropriately?

This is exactly what culture is!  That little word ‘appropriately’.  The unwritten rules and values that you consider normal. The ‘standard’ of behaviour that you would reasonably expect others to follow.

In my home and family we’ve created a culture.  It may not be explicitly defined, but it’s there: standards of behaviour, expectations of how we speak and how we shouldn’t speak, the etiquette of politeness, etc..  When those standards and expectations are violated, when someone cuts across my cultural expectations, it makes me extremely uncomfortable. Which is what happens when our hypothetical visitor comes to dinner.  My culture has been disrupted and violated, and it makes me uncomfortable.


Culture is a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the ‘meaning’ of other people’s behaviour.


Culture is derived from the Latin word cultura which means to care for and grow.  A culture is simply an environment where things grow.  Good things can grow. Weeds can grow. What grows depends on the specific culture, but something will grow.

This concept of culture was first articulated by anthropologist Edward Tylor, one of the founding figures of social anthropology, in the late 19th century.  He used the concept of culture to distinguish different actions and environments of groups on an evolving scale from ‘savagery’ to ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilisation’.  More recently, however, this concept was developed with a more inclusive thinking, defining culture free from any value judgment of which culture might be ‘right’ or ‘better’.  Who knows perhaps your hypothetical visitor has the more honest culture because there is no pretence.  Don’t we all want to be selfish really?

The idea we are building on in this book is the concept that culture simply exists and is the product of the shared values, behaviours and thoughts of a group.  Any place where two or more people gather for a purpose, a culture will exist.  Either explicitly or unwritten there will be rules and expectations of how to behave.  This is culture!

If you want to look further at your culture then get in touch for a free consultation

Benjamin Drury
Benjamin Drury
A common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Helping entrepreneurs be brilliant! Building cultures and environments that inspire people to be great! Uber geek, author, experience designer & culture builder. Husband of 1, father of 3, real ale lover, rugby watcher, 49ers fan. (Also drinks lots of tea!)

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