The Weight of Cultural Norms

Traditions and rituals are really cool. As any athlete (or serious fan) will tell you, it is of the utmost importance that pregame rituals are followed exactly. As any serious camper will tell you, it is of the utmost importance that we sing a song before each assembly, that we cross our left hands over our rights during Friendship Circle, and that each cabin have an introductory gimmick for each campfire.

Rituals are part of what connects us with our pasts, and help us convince ourselves that how we lead our lives is valuable and will mean something to those who come after us. It doesn’t actually matter if a pro ties their shoes the ‘right’ way before the game any more than it matters if a NHL player’s beard has been grown out all playoffs long. If we sang songs at the end of assemblies at camp, it would be fine. We changed the location of the Assembly Area, which necessitated changing all of the meeting trees, and none of the activities suffered, nor did the Wee Little Tree suddenly wilt and die.

Rituals and traditions should have a purpose, or should be used for a purpose. And you should make sure to look over your big and little traditions in your workplace and see if they have value, or where they can be tweaked to add value. If we let traditions without value stay, we risk becoming culturally moss-covered as we join Kodak in the museum.

One of the things that gives traditions at camp so much weight is that the property and culture feel stuck in time. It is impossible to be at camp and not feel as though the barefoot fun is exactly the same today as it was in 1928 when camp was founded. Because of this, traditions and rituals cut both ways. We can tell people that “This is how we do things/treat people” and have them believe it is important because that’s how it’s always been. But we are also limited in what we can try out and do if it doesn’t fit existing cultural expectations.

I was reminded of this cultural limitation today when I saw a post on Facebook from an alumni from the 50s and 60s showing a Brown versus Green canoe challenge sheet. In my 20 years at camp, we have strongly opposed the idea of having a “Color War” under the premise that fixed-pie competition has little place at camp. While we’ve added a few things like a new version of Crew Olympics with individual champions, and the new running game Into The Deep with a single champion of camp, we still chaff against any hint of labeling anyone a winner at the cost of labeling someone else a loser.

In the end, cultural norms are delicate and finely crafted, which few people realize. It may seem like the Mean Girls’ cafeteria has always been stratified that way, but remember how much work Regina had to do to keep control. All it took to unravel her was a few calteen bars and a rule about sweatpants. Take a long look at the big picture values you want for your culture, and then think of ways that you already do things that can embody those values, and ways you can tweak your norms to further those values. Ask others for their input in this process, toss up ideas, give away credit. Take culture seriously and it will reward you and your business.

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