Relationships Are Like Cultures

Relationships are like cultures. When you first enter a relationship or culture, even with the best of intentions, you may not fit in. Sometimes it is far worse – distress or conflict may result as you negotiate the new situation.   158933381

I began thinking about culture during a recent trip to America. I noticed when I was walking in the streets I had a natural tendency to always to keep left on the stairs, escalators, and pathways. (Luckily I didn’t drive a vehicle!) This only led to difficulties, even near-misses, and near-crashes into people passing by. Despite the best of intention not to cause a pedestrian accident, to the surprise of oncoming traffic I often found myself naturally veering left.

It got me thinking about relationships and how we navigate relationships when we’re forming teams or groups in the workplace.

When we form groups or teams we come with our own predefined sets of rules on how to act, ways that we like to interact, and the way we think things are to be done.

Sometimes we don’t even realise that we bring our own culture to the situation. This is when conflict or distress can result, even when our intentions are to the contrary. Our expectations over take the interaction and we critique others – we may say they are not playing by “the rules”. What we sometimes overlook is that our rules are not “the rules.” They are our rules or the rules of our culture or workplace, and they may be different to the rules of other people, groups, or cultures.

I have been unconsciously trained to walk and drive on the left-hand side of the street. It is not until I visit other countries with different norms that I realise that I have been unconsciously trained to do so.

Each of us is a walking, talking, mini-culture, and sometimes we don’t even realise this until we are faced with something contrary to our rules and ways of doing things.

Our own mini-culture, that we bring to each new situation, developed through all of our life experiences leading up to this new point in time. Our mini-culture is the result of the experiences we had with our families, social groups, previous workplaces and so on. All of these domains have their own rules, norms, and ways of doing things. Sometimes the norms are unique to that situation or group, and yet we carry these expectations into new interactions, expecting that they will be the same.

Sometimes we don’t even realise the norms we bring until we enter a new situation or culture and find that our way of doing things is different to what others around us are doing. Sometimes conflicts result purely from these different views of the way things “should” be done.

Take starting a new job for example. When we enter the new workplace we bring our expectations of management, of systems and processes, of policies and procedures, and of culture and workplace relationships and so on. As the days roll on in our new workplace we realise that things are different. We then choose to adapt, toe the line, resist, or eventually leave. Along the way, however, conflict can result depending on our choices. Resolving the conflict comes through realising the characteristics of our own mini-culture, and then talking about, and re-negotiating aspects of the new shared mini-culture.

We navigate a mini-culture every time we enter a new relationship or space.  Whether we fit in to our new relationship like pieces of a puzzle coming together depends on our “fit” with others’ mini-culture. When we don’t match, our new relationship is determined by our awareness of our own mini-culture, and our capacity to see that our sets of rules are just that – previous ways of operating that may be challenged and negotiated in a new situation. Whether it be with a person, a group, or a team – we navigate a new set of rules in each new situation, depending on how flexible and adaptable we are.

Are you open to challenge and negotiation as you navigate your way through life?


  1. Neil Roberts says:

    Nice analogy Caryn. Sometimes our subconscious actions or reactions to certain situations are based on prejudices which are unjustified and need to be challenged. An important issue for mediators to consider.

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