we speed through 2002, eager to wipe away the memory of 2001 (or
at least the bad stuff), we’re still tempted to look back to try
and better understand the turbulence that existed before. It’s
hard to remember anything that happened before September, isn’t
it? There has been a lot written about the effects of September
11— on health, family, economics, tourism, global affairs, emotions,
entertainment, and beyond. We’re still trying to make sense of
what we know and what we hear.
the media’s job to eliminate complexity and ambiguity. They make
their stories as simple and digestible as possible. But anyone
looking for ways to respond to such a crisis may wish to look
deeper, to consider the complex, contradictory, and divergent
set of cultural themes that emerge in the wake of such events.
don’t even have a proper way to refer to the event (or is it multiple
events?) and we can’t seem to figure out just what the situation
is. The events of September 11th? The war on terror?
natural to try and reduce everything that’s happened to an easily
understood series of events, perhaps a monolithic notion. We may
thank the media for simplifying things, but we must keep in mind
that there is a whole range of (often contradictory) cultural
stories being told—all equally true and equally valid. These stories—combinations
of beliefs, ideas, values, and mental models—are often more effective
drivers of behavior than facts.
look at a few examples that show how a variety of cultural stories
contribute to the surface stories.
conflation” can be seen in the spate of high-profile tribute concerts
that took place in October. We may remember the concerts, but
what were the causes? The overriding story was for the viewer
to be moved, and therefore to “Donate! Help out! Stand up!”—but
for what? Actually, one concert paid tribute to the firefighters
and police of NYC, another raised money for the Red Cross, and
in Canada a nationally broadcast concert raised money for Afghan
refugees. These concerts provided a powerful emotional release,
and gave people an opportunity to respond in a tangible way. What
they were responding to was less apparent, and, in this case,
there’s “transnationalism,” the American flag being adopted by
other nations as a symbol of their support for the U.S. In Canada,
long vigilant to maintain an identity distinct from the U.S.,
the American flag was flown across the country, and now appears
on buses and billboards with the words “United We Stand.” This
would not have happened before 9/11. (Nor would it have happened
without an increase in Canadian nationalism that has been percolating
for a couple of years, and in case you think this isn’t relevant
to business, that particular trend was capitalized on, if not
generated by Molson, a Canadian beer company).
or forth” comes when people speak of their hopes or expectations
for an unclear and perhaps scary future, they speak of two different
things—moving forward or moving backward. Some express a yearning
to return to what was once good and simple, what our society thought
was important, before the events of 9/11. Others describe moving
ahead, getting past the tragedy, to find a new place where we’ve
learned some lessons, and things will be good and simple, and
the focus will be on what is important. The endpoint is the same,
but the perceived direction is opposite.
first.” Even before the details about Todd Beamer, and subsequently
were made public, both gun sales and enrollment in self-defense
classes were on the rise. It is doubtful that anyone really expects
to protect themselves from anthrax, bombing, or hijacking in this
manner, but general feelings about security are leading people
to respond. Under the same general concern even issues around
computer security seem to be receiving more media attention. A
general feeling about one issue drives behavior in logically unrelated
but culturally connected directions.
devaluation” led to American flags being in such high demand that
companies couldn’t make enough of them. Millions of individuals
sought to express something (Do we know what it is? Patriotism?
Sorrow? Anger? Support?) with the flag. A week after 9/11, NBC
changed their logo (appearing in the bottom right corner of every
program) to a red, white, and blue version. Local auto dealers
covered their showrooms with red, white, and blue balloons. Are
they doing what they can to help out, or are they cashing in on
a crisis? Or both?
addition, cars began to sprout antenna flags. But what happens
when a car with a flag on it cuts you off in traffic? Or the driver
yells something angry or impatient at a pedestrian, the flag whipping
in the breeze as they speed away? What does the act of posting
a flag imply about neighborliness, kindness, or brotherhood? Should
we expect things to be any different than they were?
consider the complex issues around race that have emerged. Hate
crimes directed at people who are or appear Arab or South Asian.
People with dark skin being taken off airplanes because of the
concerns of other travelers, then suing. Letters to the editor
that suggest foreigners better simply get used to it if they want
to live here. On the other hand, there has been a sharp rise in
enrollment in Arabic language classes. Groups of friends are choosing
Afghan restaurants for their dinners as a small piece of social
each of the above examples, some basic principles that our cultures
have assumed were fixed and permanent are being challenged, questioned,
and pushed. And for each, there are responses—columns in the newspaper,
advertising campaigns sponsored by the ACLU, on-line debates,
and so on. But issues are more complex than before, new thoughts
are being voiced, and old beliefs are being challenged, at least
for the time being.
these stories exist in the culture. They appear in the media,
at dinner parties, in email, around the photocopier at work, on
that people express beliefs, ideas, thoughts, opinions, or otherwise
tell stories. The telling is happening simultaneously, and we’re
all participating to some extent by listening, by responding,
and by repeating them.
are implications for organizations in all of this. They need to
look carefully at culture before stepping into it. In fact, this
is just basic good business practice: the need to understand the
culture of the “customer” (i.e., whoever consumes your product,
service, or message) before launching an artifact. A crisis such
as 9/11 highlights the (oft-hidden) complexity of culture, where
what we may believe to be simple and uniform may actually cleave
into multiple, contradictory, and shifting themes.
most important step in beginning to look at culture is an interest
and willingness to do so. Keep your eyes open for multiple perspectives
and conflicting stories (wherever you hear or read them). Look
at what is not being said, and keep track of stories as
they evolve (i.e., the FBI “whistle-blowing” and inter-agency
finger pointing would have been unthinkable in September, when
lawmakers sang “God Bless America” on the steps of Capitol Hill).
Get out into the world of the customer, see how they live, work,
talk, worry, and play— and understand where that does (and does
not) overlap with the conventional wisdom. Lurking in those
spaces are the opportunities. Grab a flashlight, open your eyes
wide, and see what’s waiting for you!
Portigal is a consultant who uses ethnographic research to help
his clients discover (and act on) new insights about how their
customers work, play, shop, entertain, eat, and live their lives
around products and services. He writes FreshMeat,
a semi-regular email column about the relationships between business,
culture, technology, products, and consumers. Check out his collection
of Foreign Grocery Products.
Drop him a line at email@example.com,
or read more at http://www.portigal.com
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