Community: Stew, not fondue

I was talking with some of my good friends (John, Paul and Bruce) at The Journey last Sunday about the nature of community. It all started when John mentioned the book, Hipster Christianity, which explores the notion of a collision of “cool” and Christianity.

Although I didn’t use the word Shibboleth, I did say that it’s worrisome when groups come together and develop a special vocabulary. On one hand a useful shorthand can emerge making conversations on favorite topics very efficient. On the other, there can be an unintended consequence of exclusion. Here’s where the Shibboleth notion comes into play: if you don’t know, or know how, to use the shorthand, you may be marked as an outsider or novice.

Sometimes this is called the Common Knowledge Effect, first articulated in 1993 by Daniel Gigone and Reid Hastie. In their studies they found that in groups where the majority of members possess the same knowledge, that knowledge becomes the basis of discussion. Minority-held information by individuals is clouded out of the decision-making process. There is a rush to consider the problem solved, or the right idea established. SOURCE: Three Types of Collaboration that Drive Innovation.

This is not a new phenomenon with the hipsters. Each new community and generation deals with how to describe the lexicon and grammar of their favorite subjects and core values. They wrestle with how to find norms.

I think some of this plays in the current immigration debates in the United States: should we all speak English? are we to be swimming around in a melting pot or are we more like a fruit salad? I say neither fondue where all uniqueness gets lost nor chunks of fruit forever distinct. Rather, stew is the best way to picture the ideal community.

Maybe I’ve watched too much Emeril. But I really love the idea of a common sauce of savory flavors infusing all the chunks of meat and veggies; they ‘get happy’ as they simmer together. They have a unity of purpose and a diversity of characters. Think of your favorite meal then think of it tossed in a blender and served lukewarm with a straw and you’ll get my meaning.

Sometimes, I bristle at the ‘hyphen’ Americans: African-American. Mexican-American, etc. I always think, I’m an American. Yes, my people came from Germany by way of Ukraine and my dad spoke German at home as a boy and my Mom’s family are Jews from Poland or Russia (depending upon which year you drew the border). We have traditions from each that we pass on. We preserve some distinctives, but soak up other flavors. Stew.

My employer, IBM, annually trains and daily reinforces the value of diversity. We are a global firm representing every conceivable ethnic, religious, age, and social preference. Wherever I go in the world, I find IBMers sharing our core values, but never asked to surrender the diversity. Our diversity is our strength.

Years ago I heard a great quote that went something like “I never learned anything from anyone I always agreed with”. In a functioning community, agreement on the goal without elimination of the diversity if the individuals is paramount. While similarities often help form a group’s reason for being, the point of being a group is diversity. Valuable information can be missed, never even considered if a group maintains too much uniformity. Avoid becoming fondue; celebrate your role in the stew.