The Impact of Culture on Your Career, Your Relationships, and Your Life

I, like untold numbers of others, have been following the debate about responsibility for Jared L. Loughner’s murderous Tucson rampage with considerable interest. Vastly simplifying the two sides of the debate, they are: 1) our culture is one that has long glorified violence, and recently an increased permissiveness about using violent rhetoric as it pertains to politics has encouraged unstable individuals to act out their violent impulses; 2) there is a huge variability in the mental stability of individuals, and there will always be some “crazies” who will perpetrate heinous actions.

I would like to review some of the reasons why I favor the first side of the argument, pointing to specific ways in which culture (familial, religious, regional, national) significantly impacts the way in which we look at almost all aspects of our lives.

Age – Anyone born before 1960 or so will remember that, back then, a person in their 60s was considered elderly. There was even a period of time in the 1970s when people over 30 were viewed as “over the hill”. Today, 50 is the new 30 thanks to the lifestyle changes initiated by many baby boomers (exercise, healthier diets, a search for self-improvement) and also thanks to clever marketing which promises continued vigor / youthfulness through the purchase of various products and services.

Gender – One of the most fascinating aspects of the hit series “Mad Men” is the vastly different roles / expectations of women pre-women’s lib. The same thing can be seen in almost any movies from the 1950s or 1960s: an astounding portrayal of the proper role of women in society and family life, which limited them to caring for others and general passivity. This is still the case in many parts of the developing world.

Occupation – To be a lawyer was until quite recently considered among the most prestigious of professions. Now, lawyers are often viewed as disreputable, as epitomized in the following joke: “Q: How can you tell a lawyer is lying? A: His lips are moving.” In Las Vegas or Atlantic City, being a black jack dealer has a very different cachet than it does in Baltimore or Billings. Hedge fund managers are viewed quite differently on Wall Street than they are on Main Street.

Wardrobe – Most women used to wear girdles, virtually all men used to wear hats. Jeans were only for laborers.

Sexuality – Homosexuality was until quite recently considered a mental disorder, and in parts of the country is still considered so deviant as to be severely punishable, if not through legal means then through social ostracism, bullying, or even murder. Certain religions and denominations still consider it an “abomination”.

Family – If you come from a family in which debate was encouraged, your sensitivity to criticism is probably diminished. If you come from a family in which there was alcoholism, you may find it difficult not to blame yourself when things in your life go wrong. Families have vastly different ideas about things like the role of children, encouraging individuality, and manners.

The examples I’ve cited above are relatively obvious. Culture is like water to a fish: it completely surrounds the creature without any awareness on the creature’s part that it’s there, but it certainly constrains the space that the fish can occupy. Thinking long and hard about all of the ways in which culture impacts you, putting yourself in the shoes of someone from a very different background. can be enlightening. In what ways are your cultures (we all live in multiple ones) impacting your view of yourself, your career choices, your family values, your goals and aspirations, your relationships? Looking carefully for the answer to this question can result in a reexamination of the obstacles to your success, fulfillment, and happiness, and can open up a liberating new view of your possibilities.

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