Culture by Cookies

Author: Aubrey K. Wiete, M.A. | Source: HCI | Published: December 20, 2012

Culture is hard, no doubt. It’s a difficult concept to grasp because of its intangibility, and this contributes to the challenge of managing it, let alone changing it. And yet, culture does change. But, it typically happens reactively and without guidelines. As a result, some have referred to culture as a bonsai tree – with pruning and care, it can develop into something unexpected and beautiful, but if neglected, it will grow off course quickly.
 
Some organizations shudder at the concept of culture. Its amorphous nature can be threatening, and goes against the grain of structured processes, clear hierarchies, and obvious ROI. With so many factors affecting it, culture is nearly impossible to dissect and identify. Yet, in spite of, or maybe because of this, it is a topic that visibly warrants more scrutiny, and one that HCI is surveying about right now. What is a culture made of? How can it be influenced, and altered, and improved?
 
In my own life, one of the best examples of culture is the Christmastime traditions in my family. This series of small, annual acts and events are woven together to create a holiday culture. Perhaps your family exchanges white elephant gifts or plays board games every holiday season? Or maybe you cook dinner together and sing Christmas carols? Like other cultures and norms, holiday traditions may seem difficult to change, but one experience a few years ago showed me how, when it’s thoughtfully done, culture can be changed.
 
I’m no baker (I once tried to make zucchini bread with cucumbers), but several years ago in grad school and with very little disposable income, my husband and I were forced to seriously rethink our Christmas gift-giving practices. After a lot of thought, we settled on cookies, and four days before December 25, out came the flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and every other baking ingredient we could get our hands on. Our kitchen was a certifiable disaster. Out of the chaos, miraculously, were several dozen golden coconut macaroons, chewy snickerdoodles, soft chocolate crinkles, and crispy Ginger snaps.
 
Somewhat nervously, we wrapped all of the goodies up and took them to our Christmas parties. No one else in our families had ever ventured the baked goods route, and giving cookies was a lot different from the typical giftcards and CDs under the tree. And…everyone loved them! I even got complimented on the coconut macaroons with an urgent request to bring more next time.
 
Several years later, our cookie giveaways have begun part of our Christmas tradition, disastrous kitchen and all. It almost seems silly to recount this story as evidence of cultural change, but that is truly what it is. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles facing culture – and the development of it today – is fear. It is intimidating to try and address something so big and so pervasive. There is a risk of failure, and of inability to actually have an impact on the day to day. And yet, in the same way culture is made up of many small things, it can also be changed that way - act by act, word by word, cookie by cookie.