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Culture as Amplifier

One of my pet theories about culture is that one of its principal characteristics, if not purposes, is that it amplifies and distorts nature. For example, men naturally have more muscle mass than women, but many cultural institutions and practices exaggerate and amplify that difference by making muscle-building a “masculine”, decidedly “unfeminine” activity. The same is true for aggression vs. nurturing, with boys typically being given toy guns and encouragement to be wild and obnoxious loudmouths, while girls get dolls and cues to be more demure. Depilation is another example: The natural differences between hairiness between men and women are exaggerated by culture-created practices such as female-only leg-shaving, eyebrow plucking and underarm denuding.

Similarly, in some cultures, such as Japan’s, the natural differences in pitch between male and female voices are exaggerated, with female elevator operators sounding like high-pitch helium-sniffing Minnie Mouse-clones and tough-guy Yakuza gangsters projecting deep, raspy voices that sound like gravel graters. Domains other than gender get similar differential and amplified treatment: The natural developmental differences between the young and old get magnified by the cultural artifices of generational marketing and labeling, such as “teen markets”, “generation X” and legislated retirement ages, creating bigger and clearer gaps, if not chasms, between generations than nature does.

Artificially Amplified Recruitment Gaps

Being a culture within a culture, recruiting culture should display similar properties. Hence, it can be expected to exaggerate some natural differences, while making demarcations sharper and more prominent, much as culture transforms the fuzzy natural delineations of male-female differences into more clear-cut and dramatic ones.

What amplifiers and distortion does recruiting culture create and apply?

  • DRESS CODES: Without being consciously sexist, recruiting culture amplifies natural male-female differences through enforcement of dress codes. Although it does allow some masculinization of female attire, it totally proscribes the reverse feminization of the male office wardrobe, as the zero probability of seeing or hiring a male applicant wearing a dress amply attests.
  • TALENT: Recruiting culture exaggerates, amplifies and artificially demarcates nature’s distribution of talent. From the natural, genetic standpoint, most people will have often complementary strengths and weaknesses of all sorts and in varying degrees, both intra- and inter-personally—intellectual, creative, organizational, psychological, physical, sensory, volitional, moral, health and motor, to name but a few, all of which will impinge  most jobs, if not every job.

However, the screening process will focus and seize upon a small subset of these and sort and elevate winning sheep from and at the expense of losing goats on that narrow and over-weighted basis, thereby artificially magnifying, ignoring and distorting the natural, myriad and often offsetting differences among applicants.

  • WORK-LIFE BALANCE AND MIX: By buying into the concept of being a “professional”, the recruiting sub-culture artificially amplifies and distorts the differences between work and the rest of life. From a logical standpoint, the “opposite”, i.e., the logical complement of “professional”, is merely “not-professional”, which includes everything from cabbages and cauliflower to kings.

However, like all other professional cultures, recruiting culture conceptualizes the “opposite” of professional as either “unprofessional” (a bad thing) or as “personal” (which, although normally not a pejorative term, becomes one when frowned upon in a professional business context).  The result is that the seamless integration of labor and the rest of life that typified early humans living in a hunting and gathering “state of nature” is cleaved, distorted and reassembled as an amplification of whatever natural differences between work and life that existed for our primeval ancestors.

Unlike them, a modern recruiter is unlikely to literally groom a client or candidate, while grooming the latter for hiring. Whereas a pygmy fashioning arrowheads outside his Amazon jungle hut is very likely to flick flies from the face of a squatting helper at his side, it would be the rare recruiter who would ever brush dandruff from the shoulder of another’s suit. More importantly, recruiter culture severs or bars most of personal life from professional life, thereby and thereafter amplifying the variable and fuzzy natural differences between these that never would have dawned on the mind of man at the dawn of civilization.

  • SALARIES AND WAGES: Until women earn as much as men do for doing similar, if not identical jobs, the employment contracts drawn up to recruit them will reflect and perpetuate cultural distortions of “natural” power differences—mostly brawn-based—that prevailed in primitive warrior and hunter societies.

If it is argued that current salary and wage differences between men and women do not amplify and indeed may narrow whatever primitive differences in rewards enjoyed by the sexes, it can be replied that to the extent that the modern jobs that are being unequally rewarded are themselves modern inventions of advanced culture, e.g., cost accountant, there is, a priori, no reason why, in the “natural” scheme of things, there should be any wage differences at all—especially since modern professional recruiting is virtually never brawn-based.

Hence, from the standpoint of “natural justice”, the cultural artifact of wage gaps is an amplification of what should be a zero gap.

  • OPPORTUNITIES: The early human “state of nature” as evidenced in the anthropological record included instances of matriarchal societies and the robust participation of women in power institutions such as tribal councils. In contrast to the male domination that prevailed in early human societies, Will and Ariel Durant, in Volume 1 of their monumental 11-volume Story of Civilization,  cite the fact that, “It is also true that there have been, occasionally, women rulers among some South African tribes; that in the Pelew Islands the chief did nothing of consequence without the advice of a council of elder women; that among the Iroquois the squaws had an equal right, with the men, of speaking and voting in the tribal council and that among the Seneca Indians women held great power, even to the selection of the chief.”

Accordingly, the scarcity, if not virtual absence, of women in various recruiter-facilitated professions, from the standpoint of these exceptional earlier cultures, represents an amplification of the participation and opportunity-rate gaps between the genders and, in some cases, an actual reversal of the natural male-female opportunity ratios that existed in such earlier societies. In some cultures, the amplification is damped over time, as was the case when the suffragettes in America won the vote for women, a right cemented in the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, in 1920.

However, among the current GOP candidates participating in the 2011 presidential contender debates, only one of the eight—Michele Bachmann—is female. From a mathematical and anthropological perspective, can this 1-to-8 ratio be an unamplified, natural probability of 0.125 that a woman can do as good a job as a man, as president? Or is it a cultural and artificial amplification of any natural differences in aptitude that may exist or access to resources required to be a viable candidate? True, a presidential candidate is normally self-declared—at least publically; however, behind-the-scenes recruitment and financial support of contenders makes the process highly analogous to conventional professional recruiting and head-hunting in the run-up to the nominating conventions.

Converting Insight into Cash

If, as I suspect, intellectual and cultural insight matters to you less than making money, it is important to grasp how this concept of “culture-as-amplifier” can impinge your bottom line: To see this, just ask yourself this question—“Does my acceptance of artificially amplified natural differences amplify or diminish my chances of closing a deal and making more money?” Are you more likely to get a commission or fill an in-house position by supporting culture-amplified, defined and perpetuated generation, gender and gift (i.e., natural talents, skills, etc.) gaps?

Your answer may very well impact the gap between what you earn and what you wish you earned—hopefully without amplifying that difference.

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