As we prepared for our move from the Midwest to the South, my husband warned me I was about to experience culture shock. Things would be different in Southeast Tennessee, he surmised, and it could be difficult for me to adapt. I wasn’t worried, though, because I am no stranger to new cultures. Everywhere I’ve worked has had its own.
Some companies have carefully chosen the official cultures they strive to maintain and have gone so far as to publish them along with their values, on corporate websites. Working at such a company, it is common to hear people discussing whether a particular behavior fits the company culture, because if not, the behavior must change.
In my experience, workplace cultures are less deliberate. They’re complex. They’re about inexplicable rhythms and attitudes, and trying to rationalize them is like trying to explain why the line at the grocery store moves slower in the South than in the Midwest and I’m the only one who seems impatient. As far as I can tell, most work cultures seem to form organically through some combination of the nature of the industries themselves, the employees, management and the environment. These cultures may not have official labels, but workers know them and the roles they play in them.
In a culture where upper management constantly changes the rules, you will find employees who feign compliance, knowing that in a week or two, policy will change again. In a culture where any of the people with whom you eat lunch could be fired tomorrow without warning, you will find nervous employees on edge, fearing for their jobs in a culture of mistrust and fear. There are cultures in which people hope to stay under the radar and just survive, and there are cultures where managers work with their associates on ways to grow. There are cultures in which a death in the family is an an offense that requires an obituary as proof that you were not playing hooky, and there are cultures in which your coworkers sign a card, and the company sends flowers and encourages you to take all the time you need. You’ll find cultures where creativity and a sense of humor are encouraged, and cultures where signs of these traits are repressed. Cultures in which swearing is common, cultures where it is simply unacceptable. You’ve seen it yourself, I’m sure.
That’s the thing about going to work somewhere new. It’s more than the salary, the health insurance or even your actual job description. There are times when you love the work you do but can’t stand to go to the office. You loathe the culture. Many of us, concerned about our long-term careers, feel we can only accept positions “worthy” of our professional status. We feel it is somehow wrong to take a job that might appear on paper to be a step down because it does not have the right designations in the title. If you’re going to spend 40 or 50 hours somewhere each week, though, you might want to consider the culture.
I’m not saying any culture is going to be a perfect fit. You may have days when you arrive at the office, ready to roll up your sleeves and accomplish something big, only to realize your supervisor has overslept again and everyone else is looking at pictures of someone’s cousin’s baby and discussing a neighbor’s stepson’s ex-wife’s botched liposuction. You may wonder why you even bother. You may feel like quitting. Or you may consider some of the alternative cultures out there, and embrace this particular one before you get a reputation for being a stick in the mud.