The Culture in Our Code

Trickle-down Rust Belt.

My daughter asked me to describe our family’s culture for a school project. I blurted out, “trickle-down rust belt.” She stared at me blankly. Fair enough. In typical fashion, I wasn’t sure what I meant either.

So, we took the phrase and did a mental double-click — the holy grail of co-creating shared meaning and understanding.

The “Rust Belt” (as our family experienced it): Northern U.S. regions built around the steel and other heavy industries. Large urban areas that speckled into small, rural towns reflecting the early European immigrants who populated them. Winding rivers and valleys. A place that cultivated patience by making tractors street legal.

The culture (as I experienced it):

* Always help your neighbor, even if you’re involved in a property dispute stemming from unsanctioned cement posts or alleged friendly fire.

* Work hard. Start before the rooster crows. (That lazy rooster was probably eaten last night by the damn fox anyways.) “Young, old, girl, boy…irrelevant.” If you can walk, you can shovel snow and cut grass.

* Be strong. Steel strong. You’re tough. Don’t cry. Don’t complain. Unless you see bone or internal organs, you’re perfectly capable of sewing yourself back together…literally and metaphorically.

* Be resourceful. No excuses. Find a solution. Use everything until it falls apart…and then find a way to rig it back together. Thou shalt not buy new until you’ve failed at inventing from old. Duct tape is always a good idea.

* Shoes are optional, but for the love of God, put on a babushka before you get ticks in your hair.

* Fridays are for fish and pierogies. Period.

As my daughter and I talked, I was reminded that we all have an operating system built by our biology + biography, which includes our cultural values and beliefs. This operating system drives how we perceive and respond to the world. It shapes our behaviors and how we relate to ourselves and others. It attaches values to things: good/bad and right/wrong.

For example, I once offered to trouble shoot an emotional processing assessment my colleague was developing. Words flashed on the screen, and I had to assign an emotional value to them. As we went through my responses, things got awkward. When we got to the word “manure,” she was expecting a negative reaction…typically disgust. I chose happy. Upon seeing her eyebrow raise, I assured her I was not some creepy lover of poo. But growing up, manure meant planting time. Spring into summer. My operating system coded manure = happy.

Take the word “rust belt” as another example. This phrase stirs pride in me because it’s coded in my operating system as positive values and experiences. But for some, this term is a pejorative. For others, it’s coded as negative because no two people have the same experiences within any culture. Growing up in the rust belt was not all rainbows and butterflies and staying there beyond childhood put you smack in the middle of closed-down storefronts, crumbling infrastructure, economic scarcity, and the wrath of our devastating opioid epidemic.

System Error

Yes, our operating system is essential for making sense of our world and responding appropriately. It allows us to act quickly and have a sense of self, which we need for our psychological well being. Because of it, we don’t mess with vipers or bears (unless you’re from the rust belt, and then you chase them with brooms). And we can make thousands of decisions each day because we have experiences, values, beliefs, and preferences guiding us.

Essential, yes. But like most things, our operating system both serves us AND doesn’t serve us depending on the context we’re in, what we really want, and how we’re trying to evolve. If our coding shapes our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors then it’s driving our results. So, when we aren’t getting the outcomes we seek, we often have to go back and look at what’s steering the ship. Because what got us here may not get us there.

Let’s take my family’s culture because I’ve already tricked you into partaking in my daughter’s school assignment. (Suckers.)

I don’t need to tell you why “work hard” is great. It’s pretty obvious how it serves. But it doesn’t always serve.

It doesn’t serve when you burn out and become someone you aren’t at home, wounding yourself and those you love. When you tell yourself that “this is just how it is,” and stop trying new solutions. It doesn’t serve when your co-worker is promoted — that “lazy jerk with no work ethic” who comes in after 8 am and uses all of their paid-time-off. This eats away at you, leaving you angry at your boss, disconnected from your co-worker, and frustrated and dissatisfied with your job.

“Be strong” is another good one. It’s the bees knees…until you put off the doctor visit again, allowing the cancer to grow. Until people have violated your boundaries for years (because you can take it and don’t want to be a “fragile victim”) leaving you resentful, exhausted, and broken. It doesn’t serve when your sister falls apart after her divorce, and you just don’t get why she hasn’t gotten over it yet. You “help” by being firm that she should pull herself up by the boot straps and snap out of it. You feel disconnected from her because she just isn’t doing anything. She pulls away because she just can’t handle another empathy miss by you. It stirs up shame and pain, two things she already has plenty of.

We all have aspects of our operating systems that serve us AND get in our way.

Even aspects like pierogi Fridays.

So, we have to get curious.

  • What values and beliefs do you have from your biography – your upbringing, culture, life experiences?
  • Where do these serve you? Where might they not be serving you?
  • When you acknowledge their role in your outcomes, what changes for you?

Let’s be clear: you shouldn’t change your values and beliefs just because something is going sideways on you. But, if you acknowledge them and their role, you gain self-awareness and information. And this allows for choice, action, and empowerment.

If you see you tie “work hard” to “creating value and deserving reward” and recognize that this is your “truth” but not the “Truth,” this is information for you. Perhaps it’s information that you would thrive better in a different work culture. Perhaps it’s information that you want to redefine what it means to provide value and deserve reward. Perhaps it just means that you want to let go of believing your co-worker is a horrible person, which allows you to have better ease, connection, and collaboration with him. Regardless of how you use the information, it has you in choice rather than sitting angry, frustrated, and feeling unseen.

I expect my daughter’s class to appreciate what they learn about her culture, including the parts I didn’t mention, like “Steelers Sunday is sacred” and “love of freedom and democracy is positively correlated with the size of the fireworks you buy.” Perhaps we adults should all have to do such a project…**

** This post is adapted from a LinkedIn article by Samantha Crowe published on 9/13/2019.

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