Culture: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a particular collective unit
I’m fascinated by culture. As I’ve examined it more thoroughly in grad school, through research for books, and in my own time, I’ve noticed that culture is often discussed as something “out there.”
I think that’s a cop-out.
Because culture is everywhere.
It’s right there, wherever you are right now.
It’s right there, displayed uniquely by the group you work with or the group you spend the most time with. It’s right there, developing uniquely between you and one friend and between you and another.
I believe that a family has a culture. That a team has a culture. That each space or place is filled by a culture or, more likely, many cultures.
Culture certainly shows itself in both beautiful and broken ways within entire systems—whether political, religious, academic, or otherwise.
I also believe that we each—made of many parts that create a whole—carry and cultivate our own culture—our own set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices. Our unique set is, of course, influenced by our personality, our experience, our emotions and thoughts, our memory of our younger selves, our dreams of who we will become, and more.
I certainly want to know what kind of culture I carry, what kinds of cultures I choose to be part of, and how I help shape cultures too. But when I’m unsure of which direction to turn—in a relationship, within my work environment, or within myself—what can I look to?
With so many cultures all over the place, could there really be any “right” way to cultivate and carry a culture?
That’s what I am attempting to answer through this post.
The Honest Culture
I am personally committed to cultivating and carrying an honest culture, to being part of honest cultures, to advocating for more honest cultures in the work and education arenas.
You might think, Sounds like a cool idea. Maybe I’m with you. But what do you mean by “honest culture?”
One way to say what I mean: In an honest culture, the attitudes, values, goals, and practices that make up the culture are measured by honesty.
A different way to say it, just for fun: Honesty is what characterizes the elements that characterize the culture.
We all know that cultures shift. They evolve. They respond. They develop. The elements that characterize any culture (the practices, for example) will change.
What then, can we go back to as a foundation, a place to land? How can we trust our cultures? What should consistently characterize these ever-changing elements that characterize culture?
In the honest culture, the answer is honesty.
Why Does This Matter?
I’m a big-picture thinker, so I often think about patterns that run the world and why those are often so detrimental to health and happiness. If you’re a big-picture thinker like me, you might already see how the world could change for the better if more people and groups would cultivate and carry honest cultures.
If you can’t see that quite yet, no worries. Keep reading, and you’ll see how this culture could affect specific areas of life in very practical ways.
As I’ve practically applied the honest culture in my own life, I’ve been able to heal. I’ve moved toward greater freedom and joy. I’ve literally gained more breath.
I think that when many of us hear the word “honest,” we feel a lot of unwanted emotions. We might think, Oh no, what do I have to do now? What do I have to share? What do I have to give?
The consistent theme here is “have to.” We think of being more honest as a “have to” because we can’t help but have a one-dimensional view of honesty.
When you hear the word, maybe you immediately go to:
- Sharing all the secrets you don’t want to share with people you don’t want to share them with
- Being a better, more “moral” person who has it all together
- Measuring up to the standards of honesty set by authorities in your life—who in one way or another communicated that honesty was about telling them things they wanted to hear, even if you didn’t believe them
This is such a sad list.
And if it’s how we think of honesty, it’s no wonder none of us want it in our lives—especially not as a central, foundational element of our lives.
But what if we thought of being honest not as a “have to” but as a “love to.” What if more honesty led us somewhere better?
What if, when you thought of honesty, you thought:
- Truly knowing yourself
- Being able to build healthy connections and draw healthy boundaries with others
- Feeling more happy, free, and present in your life
- Being able to bring your whole self and story to your life, without hiding or manipulating
That list sounds a little better, right?
I believe these are exactly the types of results the honest culture leads to, on a personal level. If you then multiply that goodness within entire companies, systems, and nations, the results could be truly phenomenal.
Honest cultures are made up of core elements. Here are a few:
In an honest culture, we value true encounter.
If you’re familiar with Martin Buber’s I and Thou, you’re familiar with the concept of encounter. Many thinkers and philosophers throughout history have talked about this concept in one way or another.
In short, true encounter occurs when we each show up as unique individuals within a whole. This sounds overly simple, but it can actually get quite philosophical.
On a practical, everyday level, encounter is about true conversation—which is not about a number of words back and forth but about connection, understanding, and meaning. True conversation does not necessarily require any words at all.
In true conversation, we are:
- Ourselves. We make every effort to be who we are. Easier said than done.
- Learners. Willing to be wrong, to see differently, to learn.
In true conversation, we ask:
- What might we find in the space between us? In the mystery?
- Is there room to find? Is there room to be surprised?
Whether through true conversation or otherwise, encounter is where we experience meaning in our lives—internally, relationally, spiritually. It’s where we have the opportunity to see the beauty of the other and the beauty of us.
So often, those who carry cultures forward fight for everyone to be the same. This is a hopeless fight, and a waste of energy.
These leaders constantly create packaged presentations to say, “You must be this way.” But of course, not everyone will be that way. And what’s worse is that the culture can’t benefit by each person showing up as they are.
The truth is we all fight against encounter to some degree. We fight because of fear. We fear meeting the other as they are because we fear meeting ourselves as we are. It feels much safer if we’re all the same.
Of course, the desire to belong is biologically inbuilt. It’s not wrong. It’s a healthy desire. Some people who tend to be more independent (myself included) sometimes miss opportunities to know others or themselves because they don’t want to be seen, in any way, as the same.
But encounter doesn’t require you to be a particular degree different (or similar) to others. It requires you to be willing to be who you are and let others be who they are—whatever that might mean and wherever that might lead. You’ll always find similarities. You’ll also find differences.
Finally, encounter requires deep acceptance—of yourself and others. And if you are truly going to practice acceptance, you must also acknowledge the reality that we are all in-process.
In an honest culture, we acknowledge that we are in-process.
When I say we are in-process, I do not mean we are individually moving toward better versions of ourselves or better versions of our groups. Of course, we all want to progress, but the problem with using the word “better” is that we then have to decide who defines that word and how it is defined.
Sure, we could measure better by whatever leads to greater health and freedom, but that better is more often defined and measured by one authority figure who is responding to life, leadership, or the current situation out of fear.
All this to say, we have to be careful with following what is “better.”
What we can do in an honest culture is recognize that we are always in-process. We are always shifting and developing, just like culture itself. On both individual and collective levels, we change.
The process of change is, in itself, beneficial to our lives. But yet again, we so often try to keep things the same.
The culprit? You guessed it: fear.
What I’m not saying is that we need to ignore fear. Not at all. Fear is there for a reason. And it’s actually helpful from time to time (like when there’s something we actually need to be afraid of).
But when it comes to culture, we can’t listen to fear for direction. If we do, we’ll never explore, learn, or grow. Fear will keep us stuck.
Some people do take things to the opposite extreme and constantly seek out change for change itself. As a creative person, I admit to being part of this group.
To my fellow curious creatives, remember that life itself will allow us plenty of opportunity to be in-process. Recognize that your version of following fear will often look like moving toward rapid change. Which can be just as harmful as not exploring at all.
So, if we are in-process but should not remain stuck or rely on rapid change, what should we do? We should listen and respond the the process itself.
In honest cultures, we listen and respond for ourselves and for others. We listen with honesty so that we can know when we need to think or act differently. We observe with honesty and help others see how they are in-process too, using our unique gifts to share with others as we go. Some will counsel. Some will coach. Some will simply listen.
You will know how you can honestly offer your gift if you are a honestly listening to who you are and where you are right now in the process. You will not hold back what you can easily share. And you will not give beyond capacity. You will be full and give freely from your overflow.
Note: In-process doesn’t mean we don’t have core principles we stand behind. We all have convictions in life for a reason.
For example, this very article is in-process. I’d love to hear your thoughts (send me a message or reach out through social media). It’s very possible that I’ll edit or add to the content based on what you share. At the same time, I’m not likely going to change my whole philosophy. The ideas I’m sharing are built upon years of experience, observation, and learning, so it would be foolish to quickly give them up.
What I will do is be open to being wrong, to shifting how I see one of the points I’ve shared, or to adding something significant I haven’t thought of before. In this way, I can listen and respond—not abandon my core beliefs.
Empowering, Not Limiting
In an honest culture, we empower people.
I could say so much about this point, but for now I’ll simply say that I’m excited. I’m especially excited about the changes I’m seeing on both the work-front and the education-front. I’m excited that businesses and schools are moving toward cultures that truly empower the people within them.
I have heard many people speak poorly about the millennial generation—how it’s all messed up and how everyone is now doomed because of the this generation. What too often gets skipped over is how this generation has played a significant role in entirely shifting how we think about work and education—for the better.
In many business and school cultures today, we’re seeing employees and students empowered to use the gifts and skills they have—and yes, to even accept and bring their personalities. Who would have ever imagined such a thing!
As you can probably tell, this point gets me a little fired up.
Soon, I will update this post with a few examples of companies and schools getting this core element of honest cultures right.
Freeing, Not Fearful
In an honest culture, we follow freedom, not fear.
When you look a little deeper, many cultures that look great on the outside are driven by fear.
Again, we all deal with fear. Again, that doesn’t mean we should follow it.
A parent might fear for their children’s safety, but should that fear shape the entire culture of the home? A CEO might fear that the business will not succeed if she doesn’t control everything, but should that fear shape the entire culture of the office? A boyfriend might fear that if he share’s more of who he is with his girlfriend, she won’t want to be with him, but should that fear shape the relationship?
Here’s the problem: too often, fear does shape the home, the office, the relationship. Too often, people do hear its call and follow.
And when they do, the results are not only sad, but also quite dangerous.
In the honest culture, we hear the call of freedom, and we stand for truth. Because where there is truth, there is freedom.
The Road Less Traveled
In the honest culture, we take the road less traveled.
This is a simple way for us to spot where the honest culture is playing out in our lives (or where it is not).
Because the honest culture is not the norm.
In almost every arena—no matter how religious or nonreligious, no matter how democratic or republican, no matter how homogeneous or diverse—the honest culture is the road less traveled.
More explanation to come on this point later.
While I fully stand behind the honest culture, I also understand that it doesn’t necessarily make life easier. In fact, if you begin to introduce the elements of this culture into your relationships, you will start to have more complex and difficult conversations with those you love.
In some cases, you might create boundaries that weren’t there before. In other cases, you might share your pain or your desire more openly. In every case, you will begin to weigh your thoughts and actions about the relationship according to honesty.
But how do you do this?
Listen to Your Body and Emotions
Yes, that’s right, your body and emotions.
You might question this. After all, this isn’t normal advice. Most people aren’t encouraged to actually listen to their bodies or emotions—not as kids, not as students, not as workers. In fact, our bodies and emotions are not truly welcome in most cultures.
We’re more likely to hear (or interpret words of others to mean):
- You have to find a way to ignore your pain.
- Your sickness or your sadness has nothing to do with what you experience relationally.
- You’re not allowed to feel this because you’re a boy. You’re not allowed to feel that because you’re a girl.
- You just need to be more logical.
Here’s the problem: ignoring our bodies and emotions doesn’t work, in any area of life. It especially doesn’t work in an honest culture.
Sooner or later, we have to face what is actually there, not what we wish would be there.
I have spoken to so many young adults in the millennial generation (single and married) who, when asked what they observed in their parents while growing up, say they rarely saw their parents address sadness, anger, or tension.
A few years ago, my wife and I actually gathered together a bunch of content from these conversations and put together a little book called Marriages Observed.
Of course, a lot of people we spoke to had great experiences as well. But in many, many cases, people remembered one thing clearly: that something always felt unresolved between their parents.
In an honest culture, unresolved doesn’t have a place. You address pain for what it is. You address sadness when you feel it. You don’t try to imagine you don’t feel anything. You don’t try to hope the other person will just understand when you’ve never actually shared what you’re feeling.
Whatever is unresolved remains stored in our bodies. We can try to ignore it, but our bodies won’t. Just as our bodies process waste through and out, we need to process pain, trauma, and sadness in the same we. The first step is to acknowledge, not to ignore.
Note: I’m not advocating that you share everything with everyone. You need to find the people who are safe for you and share what needs to be shared.
In a committed, safe relationship, it’s time to practice being vulnerable.
In your work relationships, it’s time to actually show up as who you are and stop manipulating things to try to craft a world that doesn’t actually exist.
In any relationship with a child, it’s time to see them for who they are, not for who you want or need them to be for you. It’s time to let them see that you don’t always know what’s right but that you still want to know them.
It’s time to feel and to be present to what your body is telling you.
When you practice listening to your body and your emotions with honesty, you’ll begin to recognize patterns. You’ll know when you can keep having the conversation or when you need to stop. You’ll know when you’re feeling anxious about something and when you need to share. You’ll know when you feel tension in the relationship and why.
I understand that people question how much we should listen to our emotions. I’m well aware of the counter-arguments I might get here, and perhaps will address a few in the future.
What I’ll say for now is that I think most of these arguments (that say we shouldn’t listen to our emotions) are missing the point.
For example, some might argue that too many people listen to their emotions and therefore stay in victim mentality. They always blame others and always need someone to save them.
I would argue that there’s more to the story.
The problem is not actually about how much the person listens to their emotions right now. The problem is in the way the person was not allowed to understand their emotions in a healthy way earlier in their lives.
They were not likely brought up in an environment in which they could listen to their emotions in an honest way. Instead, they were blocked from seeing and feeling reality.
When they now feel they are always the victim, they are not actually feeling honestly. They are simply continuing an unhealthy pattern that was started a long time ago, within environments where no one attuned to them rightly. Whether they were abandoned or babied, they didn’t have a healthy space to listen to their emotions and therefore have a faulty view of themselves and the world.
Again, more on this later.
So many systems in our world are set up by lists of facts. And while I don’t deny that facts can be helpful, I don’t think they’re central to an honest culture.
For some highly logical people, this could frustrate you. And I get it. I’m also quite logical in how I think.
So, analytical types, I encourage you to use your logic for all it’s worth. But don’t let it get in the way of life. Logic is a single (comparatively small) part of our entire existence. It’s useful, but it’s not everything.
But why would not I not focus on facts? Well, I think we get much closer to honesty through story, not through facts.
Truth and Meaning
First of all, it’s well known that our brains remember more and learn more through story.
I’ve certainly experienced this truth firsthand. To this day, I remember one specific class more than others from my undergrad years: Human Biology.
This class that had nothing to do with my major at the time (aviation). But I loved the class and still remember it because the teacher was a great storyteller. Through story, he made the content come alive. All of a sudden, mitochondria meant something to me. Those little things I couldn’t see were important to my life.
Stories also connect us. When we share our stories with each other, we’re inviting them into the scenes of our lives. We’re saying, “Come along and share this emotion with me.” All great movies and books extend the same invitation.
What’s crazy about stories, though, even our “true stories,” is that they are fiction. Even when we tell about something we remember, we tell it through our lens.
We never remember perfectly. We will almost always remember something that didn’t happen and enhance or diminish something that did. But does that mean our story doesn’t matter? Of course not.
In fact, our stories, however they are told, become their own sort of truth for the moment and for future generations. Entire cultures are built by storytelling for a reason.
Stories are meaningful, and they connect us. I would argue that meaning and connection are some of the greatest treasures of truth we have.
Which is why I place story at the center of the honest culture.
I want to briefly address the creators and artists of the world, because I believe you can uniquely benefit from cultivating, carrying, and being part of honest culture.
As a writer, I know how iterative the process of writing is. Inspiration itself is iterative.
In fact, this very moment, as I’m typing, I’m losing a sense of inspiration that I find necessary to create good content.
Within an honest culture, we choose to listen to the ups and downs of the creative process. We don’t force creative work when it’s just not there. We understand that our projects might not finish as we initially intended they would.
I recently started yet another creative project I called SceneStudy. I was inspired about the idea but was still trying to figure out what I really wanted it to be. After a few weeks, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to host live experiences in which young adults could learn about themselves through doing creative work (writing a book, making a movie, etc.). This idea would have to wait. And, if I’m honest, even that idea might transform further as I move forward.
As a creator/artist, you will create A LOT that never gets seen. I hope you know that you’re not alone. I don’t think I could count the number of projects that I started over the past decade—partial books, videos I spent hours on, websites that I never took off of “coming soon” mode.
Creating takes time and energy, not just for the work but for the process.
As a creative person, being honest allows you to:
- Know who you are and what you should focus on and what you shouldn’t
- Know when you need to let things go and recognize what you’ve learned along the way
If you choose this path of honesty, you also choose presence.
The more common path is to protect or escape. Fight of flight—summed in the word fear. Or resistance (which is just another version of fear).
When we’re honest, we realize that we miss a lot of life because we fear we’ll miss it. We’re not attuned to what we feel because we’re afraid of our feelings. We’re not able to truly be with others because we aren’t honest about our true capacity or our true desire.
In a culture of honesty, we get to be more present with ourselves and with others.
What would it mean for you to be more present in your life—in major or momentary ways?
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the honest culture. I’d love to hear how you hope to see this kind of culture in your life—maybe in your family, in the work you pursue, or in the next big decision in your life.
How will honesty inform your attitude, values, goals, and practices?