Culture matters

Inuit 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. 

11 thoughts on “Culture matters

  1. Peter

    At the risk of stealing your thunder in Part 2, Grant, let me relate a story about how culture can matter to marketers, in a company I once worked for. In the early 1990s, the German mass media company Axel Springer Verlag, publisher of Die Bild Zeitung (at the time the world’s largest tabloid newspaper) noticed that newly-democratic Spain had no mass-circulation tabloids. By this, they meant a daily newspaper with lots of salacious stories, pinups of semi-naked women, sports stories, and horoscopes. The Spanish did have “respectable” daily newspapers and they also had salacious weekly magazines, but no salacious dailies: An obvious gap in the market, which ASV proceeded to try to fill.

    Their valiant attempt failed, and their new tabloid folded after only a few months. The people of Spain just would not buy the paper. Only afterwards, in focus groups trying to understand why people would buy salacious weeklies but not salacious dailies, did they learn the truth: that people felt very embarrassed, in a country still deeply religious, being SEEN in public reading such papers. Weekly magazines they could read at home, in private, but daily newspapers would be seen by office colleagues, and by fellow commuters. Culture matters.

  2. Rob Fields

    Funny, but I just suggested that culture is a medium. Not only does it frame our perceptions of social interactions as you point out in the example here, but it also impacts how we understand marketing messages. Imagine trying to calibrate marketing communications for Annakpok! How would we begin to bridge that gap, one that exists because some much of what we take for granted doesn’t exist/isn’t relevant in his world?

  3. Leon

    In the 80ies, The British Petroleum management in Italy tested an ad of a guy with a parrot on the shoulder… disaster…

    Parrot in Italian is “papagallo” also means in slang “gay”…… Can U imagine the italian macho driver with a gay on his shoulder…?

  4. jens

    find it hard to agree with “culture being invisible”. – definitely from the perspective of systems theory it is not. it is much more about a vital system of differences and distinctions that appear on the surface – visually or verbally or on different sensory levels. culture is experienced on the surface. it is about the differences that matter – to you or to them. either way it informs both.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    After almost 20 years of working with organizations, I still find it stupifying that so many leaders fail to appreciate the power of this post’s title. The ways in which culture impacts everything in a company (in a mostly invisible, “fish don’t know they’re wet” kind of way) is what makes one insurance company, for instance, so different from the next. Yet, leaders often throw up their hands in the way you describe after paying symbolic homage to “building a culture of excellence” or some such tripe. Understanding deeply the implications of a culture and then trying to figure out its impact on a company’s competitiveness still remains one of the most powerful ways for leaders to engage their organizations.

  6. Joe Grossberg

    Imagine people from another culture watching Borat. How ineffective would the humor of inpropriety be with someone for whom our cultural norms are alien?

  7. Lafayette

    GM: “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.”

    Culture is more, much more than appears in this piece. It is the foundation stone of a people, and the accumulation (for some) of thousands of years of history. For instance, the Jews or the Chinese.

    What can one say about a “culture” that is not even three hundred years old and consists of an amalgamation, mostly of white anglo-saxon protestants but also of the world. It is a rainbow culture, perhaps more so than a great many others who have remained “culturally pure”. Perhaps still in search of itself?

    Moreso, the vehicle of culture is language. It is the means by which people interact, develop relations, order their world. Damage that vehicle and the means of communication, so central to a functioning society, is hindered as well. Like money, bad speech chases out the good.

    Because of a long culture of traditions, people find touchstones or markers that serve as references. Some of these markers are political, most are societal – offering people roles to pursue or avoid. Inevitably, it is difficult not to tend towards the norm in terms of attitude and behaviour, and any eccentric behaviour tends to marginalizes the individual.

    But, what of a people without stable societal markers? Without reasonably unchangeable norms that serve as guidelins? What of them? They wander in search of a stable marker, one that does not shift or morph with time. Life becomes more difficult since standards change.

    You can’t measure distances in miles on the European continent. They are indicated in meters. That doesn’t mean you cannot find destinations, just that you are never quite sure how far along you are on the road. And a lot easier to get lost.

  8. Angelina

    Culture is an indispensible feature of our life. I think it’s quiet obvious to say that culture do matters.yet,culture cannot be restricted to some specified lines drawn by human,we can just get a glimpse of it.
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  9. Harry Sahyoun

    While trying to assimilate the idea of ethnography, I found in the Webster dictionary


    A branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures

    Let us dig furthermore, so what is anthropology:

    « Anthropology is the branch of science that studies the human being in all its aspects, both physical (anatomical, morphological, physiological, evolutionary, etc..) And cultural (socio-religious, psychological, geographical, etc..). It tends to define humanity by making a synthesis of different human and natural sciences. The term anthropology comes from two Greek words, anthropos, meaning man (in the generic sense), and logos, meaning “word”, “discourse” (and, by extension, “science”).»

    Therefore it’s the Human Discourse within his cultural environment. What’s the heck has to do with the web? And web Social? Why we’re talking about science?

    Well, anthropology briefly is a science adding to it descriptions and images becomes ethnography.

    Returning to web social we see that Microsoft has different sites according to different culture, i.e., for Canada, for france, etc. That means web social is dealing with human culture through a certain quantifiable language which is Hypertext. Therefore, web culture is a science.

    Jesus Christ but what this has to do with Annakpok.

    Well the world distance has shortened with the revolution of airplanes, communication and other technologies. With web you are seeing the world from behind your browser and interacting with it.

    While Annakpok is a casual old way for human interaction with each others since the beginning of live, web culture with its interactive and motion way will project its heavy dominance in our era and the future generation.

  10. Harry Sahyoun

    I missed to add this paragraph to the summary.

    Having billions of dollars moving through web channels, people get along and get married through the web from around the world, get educated, etc.

    While Annakpok is a casual old way for human interaction with each others since the beginning of live, web culture with its interactive and motion way will project its heavy dominance in our era and the future generation.

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