Category: culture

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

Networking – I really dislike that word…Blog #90

I stood on the outside balcony of the beautiful lake front hotel. The sun shone, the lake sparkled, the music volume was at just the right level for conversation, and every one of the 400 people in attendance were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Actually, make that 399 were enjoying themselves. I was not. My heart was racing, my palms sweaty, and I wanted to bolt!

Just the day before, I and four other new business start-ups had agreed to go to the highest attended annual networking event in Kelowna. You know, safety in numbers. None of us were comfortable ‘selling ourselves’ to a crowd of strangers, somehow letting them know that we ‘had what they needed’. So, we set a plan in place. We would pair up, approach the attendees, smile, have our new, shiny business cards ready to hand out, collect all the cards we could. We were prepared, what could possibly go wrong? 

So, there I was, right on time, standing on the balcony like the Queen of England waiting to greet her subjects. That’s when my cell vibrated with notification of a text. 

I’m so sorry, but I can’t make it tonight, something’s come up.”

“That’s ok”, I replied “these things happen.”

No problem, three of us can still work the plan, just breath Roberta. Then another vibration. 

I hate to do this, but I just don’t feel good. I need to bail tonight. You understand, don’t you?”

Two down, still two standing. We got this! Breaths are coming almost in spasms. And then the unthinkable happened. You guessed it. “My boyfriend just came into town for a surprize visit! I can’t leave after he drove all this way. Sorry. I knew you’d understand.”

I would understand? Are you kidding me?! I could have come up with a million valid reasons (ok, maybe two or three) for not making the event, but I didn’t. I was there. I was alone. The air had been sucked out of my bubble!

Let me just insert here, that I am truly an introvert. When I teach, or present at a conference, you would never know it, but I am. If you are familiar with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I’m an INTP. (I still have a difficult time getting my head around this tool). That ‘I’ stands for Introverted. If I’m representing something, or someone else, or if I have a task to do at a function, I’m ok. But put me in a situation with strangers and charge me with drawing attention to myself, I’m not a happy camper. I’m in panic mode. 

What happened next made me believe in angels. As my eyes scanned the crowd they spotted a lady I had only recently met. Our eyes met; she recognized me! And, she waved for me to come and join her! Thank you God! When I reached the spot where she stood waiting, I quickly blurted out my dilemma, hardly stopping to breathe, and asked if I could hang out with her. Remember, I had only recently met this lady, so I’m sure my emotional eruption must have taken her aback. Her next words were music to my ears. “Of course you can. Let me introduce you to some people and show you how it’s done.” The birds once more started to sing.

For the next two hours, I witnessed what I could only describe as ‘the networking dance’. This lady moved fluidly from conversation to conversation, introducing me, asking questions of each person, smiling, connecting, inquiring of life happenings in their lives, all the while holding on to a glass of wine, passing out business cards, and simply floating. The breath I was holding for so long had slowly released, liked at the end of Seasons of Life during a performance of Rent; I was in awe! 

My heart was no longer racing, I could shake someone’s hand without fear of leaving a sweaty impression. I heard myself laughing and asking questions; I was actually having fun. 

A discovery, a lightbulb moment, had just occurred worth every bit of anxiety previously experienced. Networking is not about telling people about me. It’s about being curious, listening, paying attention to what others say, hearing their struggles, their joys, their pain. And, if appropriate, offering myself, my product or service to help meet their needs. That’s it. 

Being an introvert is actually a strength when in these situations. We don’t need to be the centre of attention or the life of the party. Rather, we get to facilitate others so they can be the centre of attention and the life of the party. 

As I traveled to different countries (and yes, I do look forward to doing again), present at conferences, meet new people, I still feel like the ocean undertow is threatening to suck me in. Having a co-worker (or hubby) with me is a lifeline, but not always possible. However, when I remember to take my eyes off me, and focus on others, I have been so gratified to meet many awesome people who are more than willing to tell me their stories and share their experiences. You see, networking doesn’t just happen in huge crowds, but also between strangers standing on the train platform outside of Glasgow, or waiting for a bus in Amsterdam, or having coffee in a local café in Florence. Networking is about connections (I actually don’t even like the term ‘networking’, so it is now nixed from my vocabulary!) Connections bring people together. Connections are like a beautiful symphony performed when individual musicians join their skills and passions together to make harmonious music. Making new connections is worth the discomfort of sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and even fear of rejection. 

I can’t wait to build more connections as I journey to places unknown. 

This was my view from the Delta Grand Hotel in Kelowna, BC

Immigrants of 50 years!..Blog #78

It’s amazing how life happens, and great intentions get pushed aside. That’s what is happening to my blog…life! (be prepared, this is a long one!)

Bangor, N. Ireland (before my sister was born)

However, our family hit a milestone yesterday that simply screams for reflection. October 1, 2020 was our 50th anniversary of immigrating from N. Ireland to Canada. 50 years! I can hardly believe it. How life has changed over that time. And what a courageous decision for our parents to make – they sold everything and packed up 3 kids to fly across the ocean to embark on a new life. Landing in Ontario early October brought with it the most picturesque autumn colours…little did we realize that we were being lulled into the transition of Ontario winters.

I recall the first snowfall while living in Bracebridge, Ontario. We had never seen that much snow, 6 feet of pure glory (at least that’s what we kids thought). The downside was the freezing temperatures that came with that white wonderland; the gooey content in our noses froze shut as we walked what seemed like 10 miles to school.

There are so many stories I could share of the adjusting, adapting, re-learning, culture shock, missing family and friends back in Ireland. Still, it was the best thing that could have happened to us. That ‘starting life over’ decision made by Dad and Mum lay the foundation for such amazing opportunities for me and my siblings. We have all chosen different career paths, live in different parts of Canada, but share a common bond and love for all that Ireland instilled into the very core of our beings.

Obviously, this immigrant family of 5 grew over the past 50 years. Our parents started a clan of what now includes 3 amazing in-law spouses, 7 wonderful grandkids, and 15 of the most adorable great grandkids. Sadly, Mum developed early on-set Alzheimer’s and didn’t live long enough to meet any of her great grandkids…such a loss for her, and her grandkids. Dad hasn’t fared much better, vascular dementia and geographical distance presented a barrier we just couldn’t beat. He is now in a care facility.

Sadness and loss aside, life has been amazing! As I was reflecting on this major life re-direction, I was struck by the thought that while this immigration greatly impact my brother, sister and me, it might also have had an impact on our kids…so I asked three of the grandkids, ‘what difference do you think it made in your lives having a parent raised during their formative years in another country?’ I love their responses so thought I would share them with you (with their permission of course).     

Nanny McReady, mum, and me having a picnic at the sea.

Shannon (mother of the youngest great grandchild): My mom was born in Ireland and due to that I have always had a fascination and a small sense of pride for the country. It had always been my dream to travel to Ireland and experience the culture myself. I have now been 3 times, with the most recent trip taking me to the city where my mom was born, Belfast. At that time, I heard a bit of the history which created so many questions creating the need for a conversation with my mom; it left me wanting to know more from her perspective. Since visiting there, I have a greater sense of pride for Ireland; even though I wasn’t born there I feel Ireland is part of me. Having had a parent born in a different country, which they love and have many fond memories of, means I have two cultures to celebrate.

Nathan (father of 6 great grandkids): My mother’s Irish-ness was revealed to me in subtle ways as I grew up. Despite many attempts, I could never get her to talk in an Irish accent, and I heard very few stories of what her years in Ireland were like. Even still, I knew that her childhood was a deep part of her, even if it was a secret part of her. I’d later learn how much she felt a need to establish a new identity once she arrived in Canada, and how that sadly meant suppressing some of the very things that made her, her. It would be many years before I’d come to see how deeply Ireland was part of my mum.

As an adult, I moved to Ireland with my wife and children. Mum and dad’s first visit allowed me to begin to get to know my mother’s ‘secret identify.’ Whether it was in the way she approached the Irish Sea with holy reverence, or the way she cherished Guinness as only an Irish born woman can, or even in her deeply emotional reaction as we drove through Belfast and felt the deep fear held in memory by the murals depicting the fighters of “peace.”

I suppose for me, without really knowing it, Ireland has always been a part of me because of her, and I knew this to be true the first time I took in the rolling green hills and wild seas myself. I felt…home? No, not home, but at least I felt like I belonged there, just as she always will.

Alicia (mother of two great grandkids, and oldest grandchild): Growing up I really didn’t think anything of the fact that my dad had spent his formative years in Northern Ireland. It wasn’t like he looked different, or even sounded any different than any of my friends’ parents. I mean, I guess the red hair (what was left of it at that point), and the freckles that cover about 98% of his body did stand out, now that I think about it. And then there were the odd expressions…I remember going to someone’s house with him, and he told my brothers and I to go “knock the door”. My smarty-pants (can I say smart-ass) brother inquired where exactly we should knock the door to? And then there’s the cutlery. Heaven forbid you eat a meal without a knife! How on earth could you get food on a fork if not for a knife? I jest.

In all seriousness, having a parent raised in a different country informs so much of how we were raised. Going to Grammar School in Northern Ireland created in my dad such a strong work ethic. Schoolwork and grades were always something so important and such a priority for us. Thankfully, he didn’t adopt the strict rules he grew up with in school, and thankfully he never implemented the Ruler as a form of punishment either. For my dad, growing up meant soccer, or more accurately “football”, and seeing him instill his love for that sport, as well as rugby, in my brothers and myself, is something that has fostered in us a love of sports, and competition. Being born and raised in another country, and then as a family choosing to leave that country and come to a new one, starting a brand-new life is such a huge decision. While that wasn’t my dad’s decision independently, but rather his family’s decision, it is still something that informed so much of who he is, and how he and my mom chose to raise their family. I see that through that uprooting, family becomes so much more important, something not to be taken for granted. And while, we may not have always lived close to family, we have always been intentional about being a part of each other’s lives. It was also always so fascinating to see my dad refer back to his Irishness, his lilt if not a full accent, when we were with his extended family. It was like we got to see a bit more of his true self. My dad fought hard not to stick out when they moved here, his aforementioned flaming red hair and freckles, as well as the fact that he was tiny after having been skipped ahead a couple of grades made him stand out. And so, he tried to blend in, tried to fit in, tried to lose his accent. And while, as a teenage girl I totally got that – that need to assimilate – as I grew up, it also made me want to stand out, to be proud of being half-Irish. Perhaps as a result of that, and my love of that accent, it has pushed me to really embrace my Irish heritage. I am proud of the choice that my family made to leave Northern Ireland, but I am also proud to be Irish.

We are a truly blessed family, and even though we are spread out across the globe, there is a deep love for each other and an immense gratitude to Dad and Mum for their sacrifice. And we are, and always will be, Irish at our very core.

The shore of the Irish Sea