When professors Harrison and Huntington wrote a book with this title, my reaction was pure puzzlement. I felt like a NASA engineer who had just been given a book called "Math: more useful than you think!"
Of course, culture matters. It supplies the software for contemporary life. Does this software matter? Consider a hypothetical "Inuit test." We are going to find someone living near the Arctic circle, someone untouched by contact. (This is almost impossible to do, but let’s pretend.) We shall call our hero Annakpok. (This means "free" and in our case it means "free of American culture".) We are giving Annakpok a rudimentary knowledge of English, a destination (Manhattan), a plane ticket, one or two financial instruments…and that’s all.
The plane ride is a wonder, but Annakpok’s challenges have just begun. He wanders around the airport for while, and finally, he sees a line of people climbing into yellow cars. Someone in line tells him that the cars are going to "Manhattan." Perfect. Allan, the "taxi driver" is a chatter box and tells Annakpok all about "hotels." He also helps to clarify the idea of money by helping himself to some of the pieces of paper in Annakpok’s pocket. By the time, Annakpok reaches mid town, he is confident he can find the "front desk," "book" a "room," and hand over the piece of plastic in his pocket. (Allan’s advice still rings in his ears, "don’t let them keep it!") Annapok has heard of coffee but when he arrives at the local Starbucks, he is a overwhelmed by the menu, so many choices, such high prices. (Annakpok is already price sensitive.)
All of this knowledge is merely the "first pass," the mere rudiments of the knowledge that culture supplies and our life demands. As Annakpok wanders the airport, Manhattan and then Starbucks, thousands of culture matters and materials escape him. All the signs, the fact that people when walking tend to bear to the right, those hundreds of "magazines," beautiful things that last a month, Annakpok discovers, only then to be thrown away, and not least the differences in clothing of people around him (and the status, gender, class, professional, ethnic, and religious information this clothing gives off). Poor Annakpok can’t tell the difference between the uniform worn by the man handing out hamburgers and the one who carries a really large metal appliance, that appears always to be pointing, Annakpok does notice, downward. He has a really tough time with security screening. ("Take my shoes off?")
But all of these are themselves mere rudiments compared to the complicated and delicate interactions taking place throughout the airport. At the bar, a pilot tries to pick up a waitress. In the United Lounge, a business deal is being negotiated. Both of these take an exquisite control of detail, timing,and strategy, not to mention a mastery of fundamental ideas of contact and contract that escape even Allan.
It will take some months before Annakpok can engage in the kind of conversation that ordinary travelers have while waiting to board the plane. You know, the one that contemplates that there are one too many airlines, the joys of the spoke and hub model, the trouble with O’Hare, labor troubles at Northwest, and when it was, exactly, that air travel ceased to be glamorous and started to feel like bus travel. Any one of these topics is fantastically presuppositional. You have to know a lot even to make a hash of them.
Oh, I know this sounds like that earnest lecture that kicks off "anthropology 101." It is designed to remind us that culture is invisible and active in the most minor things. But too often it has a "did you know!" ingenuousness that begins to irritate, and eventually the brighter students begin to wonder, "well, if it operates so invisibly, let’s just take it as read and move on." This is essentially the same skepticism that leads people to ask whether they really needed to know anything about Basic to operate their new personal computers. (In the early 1990s, there were Deans who encouraged everyone to take a course in Basic to "get with the program." This is unconcious decanal humor.)
Here’s the thing. Culture does matter. It matters especially to marketers. Tomorrow, in part two, of this post, I will try to show why.
Harrison, Lawrence and Samuel P. Huntington. (eds.) 2000. Culture Matters. New York: Basic Books.