When I first heard the word “culture” applied to a workplace, I was confused. I didn’t understand what it meant back in the 1980s when it began to appear in job announcements, brochures, advertising and even in job interviews in which the interviewer attempted to explain the company to a candidate.
Truth be told, I’m still not entirely certain what it means today when I hear empty words like respect, fairness, collaboration, teamwork, trust and integrity bandied about in a company’s mission, value and ethics statements. Culture is still deemed an all-important playbook that defines the day-to-day operations and atmosphere of the organization.
But actions speak louder than words.
My confusion stems from the lack of those traits in the highly competitive, power-driven companies and industries that I worked in for many years. The managers’ bad behavior, which was the antithesis of those words, was often rewarded or, at the very least, ignored, and those who were on the receiving end of it were often the losers. I once reported bad behavior in the form of an out-of-the-blue, unwarranted screaming fit aimed at me by my supervisor. She was fired. It was against the stated “culture” of respect. But that was the exception.
Then, when I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Yap, culture took on another dimension.
An article posted by the University of the Pacific for students preparing to live outside the United States defines culture as “a neutral term, neither good nor bad, and refers to the broadest conception about the learned knowledge that humans use to fulfill their needs and wants. It refers to the collective historical patterns, values, societal arrangements, manners, ideas, and ways of living that people have used to order their society.
It comprised all those things we learn as part of growing up including language, religion, beliefs about economic and social relations, political organization and legitimacy, and the thousands of ‘Do’s and Don'ts’ society deems important that we know to become a functioning member of that group.”
Culture is not just visually apparent in the Micronesian islands through the traditional houses, dances, currency and way of dressing, but in the power hierarchy from the low caste up to the paramount chiefs and everything in between. It’s a hierarchy that exists behind the veil for tourists. For outsiders like me who lived there, the culture is learned gradually either from observation or being taken aside for explanation. And it’s never entirely transparent.
I noticed the similarity to the corporate world where the chiefs, or bosses, make the rules and keep order. In Yap, if you make a wrong move, you can be punished with an admonition from granny or, like the recent caning that I reported on, severely by your own family and community. If deemed egregious enough, you might be called before the council of chiefs and fined or otherwise punished, including in the extreme, banished to your outer island for good. In corporate America, you can expect to be “called on the carpet” and given a warning or even fired, another form of being expelled from the island.
What I soon realized in business as well as in Yap was the tendency to use culture as an excuse for bad behavior. In the islands, “it’s the culture” is a common response to domestic violence against women and children and equally horrendous acts. When such violence occurs, it is often ignored by the family and community with the excuse, “It’s none of my business. It’s the culture.” Even the women are often expected to accept it and remain quiet. A few brave women come forth, but most do not due to limited options if they leave.
When money goes missing from government coffers, it’s met with a laugh, shrug and a slap on the wrist in the auditor’s report. After all, it’s the culture. The culprit is rarely, if ever, charged.
And when someone steals betel nut, family members are enlisted to capture the thief, tie him to a tree, and beat him to a pulp. The court turns a blind eye with the excuse that harsh punishment imposed by the thief’s community is best handled in the manner of “culture and tradition” as noted in the state’s constitution.
When a police officer reports a crime they have witnessed, they have been known to retract their written report due to threats from the criminal or his family. That’s life on a small island where everyone is related in some way and the culture supports the threat of personal retribution that prevents anyone from speaking up or criticizing those in power. The chiefs, like corporate executives, turn a blind eye. It’s the culture.
When the Council of Pilung was enlisted in a failed attempt to throw me off the island, a friend began to avoid me. We met for lunch now and then, but she didn’t show up one day for our scheduled lunch date. And she didn’t respond to my emails. Several weeks later I ran into her and she told me that she was sorry, but she could not take the chance of being seen with me. People would assume she was an informant of mine about things that I was reporting on. She was not an informant, but she could not put herself or her family in harm’s way by being seen with me. Harsh retribution might follow, and she would lose her job.
It’s the culture.
But why, I ask in my confusion, is bad behavior in the form of extreme mental and bodily harm – of ostracization even – aimed at those who breach customary “do’s and don’ts” acceptable under the guise of “it’s the culture?” Why does it excuse those who participate, often with glee, in severe punishment or violence outside the law while the police, judges and chiefs stuff another leaf-wrapped betel nut in a cheek and turn away?
Joyce McClure is a former senior marketing executive and former Peace Corps volunteer in Yap. Transitioning to freelance writing, she moved to Guam in 2021 and recently relocated back to the mainland. Send feedback to email@example.com