When Cultures Collide


When Cultures Collide

Culture has been a slightly ambiguous term that refers to the set of predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize a group or organization. A Harvard Business Review article described culture like the wind. “It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt.”

In the United States, we live in an individualistic culture. Americans usually view each person as a self-sufficient individual, and place more importance on the individual, not the group. Some may view this as rather selfish and egotistical, while others may see it as a welcomed freedom from the constraints of family, community, or social class.

Emerson has also historically maintained an individualistic workplace culture. Many things have been negotiated at an individual level. For example, an employee’s salary increase, how much severance pay an employee received, whether an employee received health insurance if they retired early, all depended on each individual negotiating the best deal for themselves.

When the Emerson Staff Union was formed in 2017, there was an unspoken agreement among those who voted for the union that staff would thrive with a more collectivist approach. However, the word “culture” was never really overtly mentioned.

One of our members recently spent some time in Norway, and found it to be a window into a more collectivist culture. One of the most memorable experiences was talking to some American expatriates about living in Norway and the different cultural expectations. In Norway, there is a culture of community, and something called the “Law of Jante.” It is a social code that dictates emphasis on collective accomplishments and well-being, and disdains focus on individual achievements. In short this means the idea that nobody is better than anyone else. 

One example that illustrates the difference between Nordic and American culture took place at a Norwegian workplace. As our member’s American friend recalled, one day employees were called into a meeting to discuss a complaint from a janitor that the offices of several employees were too cluttered, making it difficult for the janitor to do their job. The American expatriates were shocked that there was even a meeting about this. Their immediate reaction was “Who cares what the janitor thinks? They’re just a janitor, not important people like us.” However, in Norway, the culture is very different. A janitor’s complaint was just as valid as any other, and the employees were told they must declutter their offices so that the janitor could do their job, and because a tidy desk and clean space improves the well-being of all workers.

Spending time in a different culture made some of us realize that some things that we think are universally accepted—such as the importance of individual personal branding, that most people like to be publicly recognized for their accomplishments, and that winning and being promoted above others is the ultimate goal—are actually simply elements of American culture and don’t exist everywhere in the world. 

Consider the Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. After winning, he said he felt uncomfortable being in the spotlight, and didn’t know what to do with his trophies because displaying them on his mantle would be considered too ostentatious in Scandinavian culture.

This is not to say that one culture is better than another, but simply to recognize that different cultures exist, and that we can help shape them. One advantage of an individualistic culture is that we believe that individual contributors can have a huge impact within their own spheres of influence. Most Americans believe that with a little initiative, creativity, and empathy, anyone can be a leader, or, to use the favored term of the day, a “change agent.” 

As Bryan Walker and Sarah Soule wrote in Harvard Business Review, “culture lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of ‘how things are done around here.’” Over the past four years, Emerson Union has been changing the culture of Emerson College. A contract that spells out regular salary increases for everyone, standards for severance pay, and early retirement benefits is only one part of it. 

The other part is the community of staff that we have created. The pull to cultivate close interpersonal relationships with our fellow staff members has created a sense of gratitude for each other and the work and roles that each of us play in every department at Emerson. The Union has allowed many of us to interact closely with staff outside of our departments, and understand more deeply how things work across the college. Before the union, some of our members remember not really knowing staff in other departments. It was easy to blame “that other incompetent department” as the cause of workflow issues, but once we got to know workers there and how understaffed they were, we found a new sense of understanding and appreciation for them and their work.

Although an individualistic culture will likely continue to be a dominant force in the United States and at Emerson, we can bring some elements of collectivity to the college culture. We can move out of the high-power (management) vs. low-power (staff) mindset and work together to cultivate gratitude toward staff at all levels whether they are a vice president or an administrative assistant. Culture is created by habits that become the norm. If as staff members we start acting more collectively we will change the culture.

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash