Culture = habits? … Blog #101

Sunday evening, church services were done, and the sitting room was all set up ready for company. Mom had been preparing for our visitors over the past couple of days, and the spread she presented was nothing short of front-cover-cookbook ready. The sandwiches were trimmed and cut into triangles, the scones were the perfect three bite size, ready to be lathered with Devonshire cream and homemade strawberry jam. Mince tarts, chocolate fudge shortbread, ‘plain’ shortbread, and Victoria Sponge cake were all part of the fare, served on a triple layer cake plate. Now, with the fireplace blazing, the room provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere for some good Irish craic with friends.  

If you think Mom put on this spread for a special occasion, you’d be greatly mistaken; this was a normal, regular, and most enjoyable cultural entertaining norm for a family in Northern Ireland, right up to when we immigrated to Canada in 1970. People would feel free to drop in anytime, knowing the kettle was boiled and ready to ‘wet the tea’ and let it ‘draw’ for the appropriate amount of time. As well, the pantry always had a tea treat at the ready for those welcomed guests who would simply drop in for an unannounced visit.

This was our ‘habit’ each Sunday evening. Similar times were enjoyed at my grandparents home in Annalong, Ireland. I have fond memories of sitting around the fire listening to my granda, with his gentle Irish brogue, recite stories and poems from years gone by, while granny cooked up her delicious tomato soup in the tiniest kitchen possible (I’ve no idea how they raised six boys in that tiny home!).

When our family immigrated to Canada, we expected those habits of culture to continue for us. Dad and mom expected neighbours to drop by anytime for a visit, they expected Sunday evenings after church to be times of visiting with new friends. Sure, my parents still invited people over, and guests were delighted by the table spread before them (albeit, with a greatly reduced salary the fare was more simple, though every bit as delicious), but such visits only happened when intentionally planned for. No one dropped by for a visit and a cup of tea. Mom waited, but no knocks ever sounded on the front door. It didn’t take long before her confidence started to crack; did people not like her? Was she an inadequate hostess? Would she ever have close friends again? It was a devastating turn of events for this accomplished homemaker who freely expressed her love and appreciation for others through hospitality.

Culture was not a topic of conversation back then. People were people. We didn’t encounter folks from other countries on our small island (the cultural landscape of Ireland has certainly changed over the years…a lovely thing to see). In our new home called Canada, we knew things were different, but had no words to describe it, only expressions of sadness, hurt, and longing for what had been.

Eventually, as a result of a heart attack, my dad met an Irish doctor who opened our eyes to the ‘Canadian way’. Dr. Mark quickly became a family friend, and provided our first lessons on cultural training. Who would have thought it would be considered an imposition to drop in for a visit? As time passed we would soon discover not only the differences in our cultures, but also in our common words of expression. Apparently it wasn’t a good idea for a student to use the term ‘stupid ass’ in class. Nor was it a compliment to tell someone their home was homely. (We learned that ‘homey’ was the complementary word we were after.) Another cultural practice, or habit, was drinking tea. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with tea…it is still a pleasure to be enjoyed by young and old alike, no matter where they call home. 

However, our habit was to have tea first thing in the morning, mid-morning, before going to the market, when we came home from the market, with lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and of course supper (the snack we had just before bed). Not until my then boyfriend (now husband) came into the family did we realize this was not the norm. 

Culture is a beautiful thing, but even some cultural practices, or habits, can be a barrier to fully enjoying the many wonders of life and living. Let me share this example. As a young woman I was suffering with constant headaches. I saw one specialist after another, and none of their brilliant minds could figure out the problem. Until one. This doctor was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), but most significant was his heritage: he was British. In our first consultation, he inquired about my tea drinking habits. When I recounted a normal day, we added up how many cups of tea I was actually consuming…more than ten cups a day, well beyond the recommended daily allowance of caffeine! His prescription was for me to stop drinking tea for a period of time. I did, missed the tea desperately, but did not miss the headaches that magically disappeared at the same time I cut out my tea drinking rituals. 

Our culture, our habits, were so ingrained in who we were, we had no idea others would not share the same. Growing up, I had no exposure to other cultures, our family travels were mostly to the South of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and just before immigrating we visited Ibiza and Canada. There is a great difference between visiting a place and residing in a place. Marriam Webster offers this as a definition of reside…’to be present as an element or quality.’ How long does it take to move from simply living to residing in a location? I don’t know…but I certainly hope that being in a place for four months (as we are in Portugal and then Spain) will afford us some of the cultural insights that are unique to these areas.

The idea of culture being habits, has created a bit of a mind shift for me over the course of my current research.  Organization culture or team culture is a topic of great interest in these changing times. We read articles and books about adapting to culture, learning culture, creating a culture, or embracing culture, among other topics, but the challenge seems to be most apparent when we start looking at changing culture.

“Culture will not change by propagating different values. Culture can only change by changing habits and behaviours. These in turn will change values, plans, procedures, and norms and finally the ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ regarding our bottomline assumptions and beliefs.”  

Jutta Ekstein and John Buck, experts in the ‘Agile’ space.

While changing my behaviour around drinking copious amounts of tea may not revolutionize an organization, it was a change in my habits, my culture, that certainly brought healing and growth to how I live my life. And, opened up a whole new world of coffee (decaffeinated of course!)

We continue to live in a time of change, change that often calls for a re-examining of organizational culture. Is it possible that such an examination might reveal some habits that, if changed, may be the first step in shifting a culture towards one that more realistically aligns with the values, plans, procedures and norms aspired to as an organization? 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a catalyst as ‘someone or something that causes a big change’. Is it possible that individuals within organizations could be the catalysts for a necessary cultural shift in an organization by intentionally changing one habit at a time? I wonder what some of those habits might be for your organization?

Praia da Oura Leste, Albufeira, Portugal

Tea cups photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash English tea service photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

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