The Eternal Social Learning Curve

I’m a student of society. I like to know what makes people do what they do. I’m interested in what’s behind people’s decisions, their likes, their inclinations. When you understand the social motivations of people, you have a much, much better chance of reaching them with your message. As a marketer and an entrepreneur who works with people to understand their audience and better target them, this is an essential part of my profession.

I’ve actually written and spoken about social trends. For the last few years, I’ve given a presentation called The Pendulum, which looks at profound generational fluctuations every 40 years or so, when the general thinking transforms from individualistic (and often self-serving) to civic (and transparent). In fact, I’ve co-written a book, The Pendulum: Where We’ve Been, How We Got There, Where We’re Headed, with the brilliant author, marketer and entrepreneur Roy H. Williams, which will come out in February, 2012. It explores in great detail what everyone needs to know about how we arrived at this point in our society, and why, and what you can do to capitalize on that.

But there’s something else in society that’s really got me thinking. That’s the way a culture views itself culturally. Not in terms of the arts (though that’s part of it), but in terms of its self-image, its way of looking at the world, at itself and others. This affects how a marketer should approach that culture.

Our Cultural Mindset

All too often we tend to look at the world only through our own eyes (yes, I know you can’t use other people’s eyes to see things, but you know what I mean). We stick ourselves in the mindset of how we were raised, of our social experiences growing up. And that tends to lead to a misunderstanding of the motivations of other people.

In Clotaire Rapaille’s illuminating book, The Culture Code, which I’ve been writing about recently, I’ve discovered new insights into how societies function. Rapaille himself is a Frenchman by birth, who realized his natural outlook was more American than that of his fellow countrymen (he was more optimistic and open, for example), and so he moved to the U.S., where he started to develop the ideas that his own sense of social dislocation led him to explore. His company, Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, has done a lot of research into why people do what they do. One of his great insights is that cultural imprinting is deeply ingrained in a person, and affects everything about that person’s choices. And that most people don’t know why they do the things they do.

This interests me greatly, because I also do work in the area of personas, which are fictional representations of idealized customers based on variations of the four main personality types (according to findings by Karl Jung and tests such as Myers-Briggs). A personality type is also a way of gaining insight into motivations by looking at why a person likes this or that, or how this person is likely to behave in a given situation.

Social Changes on a Grand Scale

As you can see, why we do what we do is quite complicated: it’s based on social changes on a grand scale, on the countries where we were born and raised and on our own predilections according to our personalities. It’s an area that’s rich in contradictions – we’re never finished with trying to understand people – but also rich in rewards, because understanding is the key to so much in business and in life.

Myself, I’ve made mistakes about culture and people. We all do. But I’m always learning. Right now, I divide my time between Calgary, Canada, and Austin, Texas – and I constantly see the differences not only between the two countries, but the two cities within those countries! It’s humbling (which is not something I’m used to saying about myself).

Have you ever been brought up short by a supposition about someone, or someplace, only to realize that it was your own perception that was the reason for your misunderstanding? Let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

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One Response to “The Eternal Social Learning Curve”

  1. Enin Serdna October 3, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    Your article reminded me of zeitgeist: the spirit of the times and of finding it. My supposition was with the Westerners take on alternative medicine as something frowned upon. I then realized how untrue this was. I noticed that the West took a lead on nutraceuticals, supplements and even alternative treatments taking queue from the Easterners wisdom. 

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