American View: Why Do Cultural Taboos Frustrate New Technology Implementation?

I often feel like I don’t know enough about life in Britain to be offering advice to the natives. As a Texan, all I have to go on for understanding British cultures are six weeks’ worth of visits, the Inspector Morse book and video collection, and a few dozen merry InfoSec personalities on Twitter. While I trust those sources to be authentic, I can never be sure that I’m getting a wholly accurate understanding of contemporary British life.

That’s why I often find myself caught off guard by British press releases. Someone – don’t know who – recently signed me up for a public relations distro list which makes every Monday morning inbox a surprise party. On the countdown to Valentine’s Day, for example, I might open an email titled “Millennials say Slough is the most romantic getaway location in England” and I’ll nod along wondering “Is that true? Do my colleagues prefer Slough over Paris?” Then I second guess myself because I have no idea where Slough is, and I don’t know what its place is in British popular culture, or whether the author of the PR is being serious. I thought Shakespeare had set Romeo & Juliet in Verona, but maybe Verona was a well-understood allusion to Slough?

I suppose my cultural blinders are no different than those brought by my British friends when they’ve come to visit Texas. My all-time favourite was a mate who visited me in Dallas and said she planned to “pop down” to Houston for a quick visit. She’d looked at a map and thought it might be a half-hour away. [1] We all had a good laugh over her misunderstanding of how gargantuan Texas really us (it’s not just our hats!).

I bring all this up to explain why I found myself captivated this last Monday by an unsolicited press release from … some outfit I’ve never heard of and can’t vouch for. I’ve gotten in the habit of skimming these missives as a new and strange window into contemporary British thought. Most of them go straight in the bin because I have no way of telling a real press release from a scam. This one, though, hoked my curiosity with its premise that a UK company has received venture capital investing to deliver an all-new engineering solution for female urinal technology in public loos. My favourite line in the piece was the claim that the funders aim “… to pioneer pee-equality by slashing waiting times for women.” That is a pun, right? It must be …

For some of us, passing up an opportunity to make a horrible pun causes us tremendous physical pain. That’s why we’re required to have editors. Also, sometimes, shock collars.

Purple prose aside, the prospect piqued my interest. Any new technology that might make latrines faster, easier, more hygienic, and/or safer to use ought to be welcome in every business and building. While it might not be as existentially important a pollical issue as nuclear disarmament, I believe so-called “potty parity” legislative measures are both necessary and important for our female colleagues. The reasons why are spelled out plainly in the Wikipedia article:

“Women and girls often spend more time in washrooms than men and boys, for both physiological and cultural reasons. The requirement to use a cubicle rather than a urinal means urination takes longer and hand washing must be done more thoroughly. Females also make more visits to washrooms. Urinary tract infections and incontinence are more common in females. Pregnancy, menstruation, breastfeeding, and diaper-changing increase usage. The elderly, who are disproportionately female, take longer and more frequent bathroom visits.”

So, yeah. My spouse is a woman. My mum and sister are women. So are half of my work friends. This new tech might be tremendously useful for all of them. Even though I’ll probably never use one, my friends and co-workers could. If this “improvement” makes their lives better, the boost to their morale will carry over and boost the esprit de corps of the entire team. It might also solve … some problems that I know little to nothing about. That makes the tech worth investigating.

Amusingly, it was a UK company sending me this news even though there are five times as many women in the USA (166.7M) than there are in the UK (33.75M) if Google’s numbers are correct. So why does America seem to be lagging Britain on researching this important issue?

I suspect the answer comes down to one word: squeamishness. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to people outside of the United States that our culture leans heavily Puritanical. While primary school children, college frat boys, and office cowboys might gleefully joke about their bathroom escapades in public, most American office cultures consider the topic to be taboo. Acting as if the elimination waste is a shameful, disgraceful act that a deviant chooses to do to thwart common decency and not a mandatory biological process that every living human performs every day. For crap’s sake – pun intended – the kids’ book is named “Everyone Poops” not “Everyone Poops Except for Ladies (Not Ever) (Don’t Bring Up the Subject Ever Again) (I’m Mortified).”

“How dare you insinuate that I have bodily functions?! I can never show my face in public again. Away with me to a nunnery!”

Ours is a weird culture. It’s also, too frequently, a self-defeating culture. By refusing to discuss uncomfortable topics we fail to take necessary action to prevent, mitigate, or minimize risks that negatively affect our people. So-called “potty parity” efforts shouldn’t be remotely controversial, yet Americans tend to treat the subject as if it was X-rated.

I assume that it’s an easier topic for me to address thanks to my many years of squaddie life. You can’t live in an army barracks and retain any sense of modesty. More to the point, being an army medic required me to deal with all aspects of “preventive medicine” … including waste disposal, latrine construction, sanitation and hygiene, communicable diseases, and asinine behaviour by bored lieutenants. I remember spending a week learning when and how to build, maintain, and close down “straddle trench latrines” as one of my job responsibilities. All the schoolyard giggling died a well-deserved death-by-boredom an hour into the lecture. It’s just work; drive on.

Heck, towards the end of my military career I got stuck running the unit’s “urinalysis” program where “select” squaddies were ordered to observe our randomly-selected peers fill up their specimen cups … up close … one after another … for hours on end. It wasn’t glamourous. It wasn’t any more “sexy” or “prurient” than supervising an oil change.

In short, once you grow up and approach such basic biology issues soberly, you can start to make positive, meaningful change by improving processes, conditions, and expectations. That’s the key: growing up. It seems like far too many Americans are trapped in a junior high mindset where topics like “bathroom visits” must be deflected with a blush, a giggle, and maybe a horrified reprimand like “This isn’t an appropriate topic for discussion.” Really? Seriously?

“For heaven’s sake, Janice … Can we please deal with this like adults?”

As a former squaddie, I often find myself wanting to grab such people by their lapels and deliver my best drill sergeant imitation directly into their terrified face, R Lee Ermey style, while bouncing them off a wall … the same way my drill sergeants corrected me of my bad habits when I was a gormless recruit. While swift and impactful, however, that technique is frowned upon by Human Resources. Managers (they say) aren’t allowed to head butt their direct reports with a steel helmet. [2],[3] So instead, we must try and be persuasive rather than confrontational. That is, we’re encouraged to change others’ behaviour and attitudes through logic, rhetoric, and negotiation.

The fundamental problem with that approach is that you can’t convince a person to abandon a deeply conditioned beliefs about a taboo subject through rhetoric and logic alone. As Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman concluded in their 2011 article Taboos and Identity: Considering the Unthinkable:

“Using rational terminology to discuss the possibility of thinking about eating human flesh is not a simple task, and may repel some of the readers. In our society, one does not need to justify or explain the taboo of not eating (or thinking about eating) human flesh. It is supposed to be obvious – as part of our characterization as human beings. These taboos may be obvious under regular circumstances. But a society needs also to ask itself what will happen in special (small probability) circumstances in which the dilemma of violating a taboo is real and practical. It seems that our possible behavior in these special circumstances is part of the definition of whom we are and what is our identity.”

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that a discussion of adopting women’s urinal technology is morally, aesthetically, or logistically equivalent to cannibalism. Instead, I’m arguing that taboo beliefs – by their nature – are often so deeply associated with a believer’s sense of identity that any attempt to try and change that belief comes across as an attack on the person’s fundamental sense of self. It’s like an indictment or accusation. People who feel they’re being negatively judged tend to recoil defensively, shutting down the attempt at dialog or even lashing out. It’s irrational behaviour, but it’s understandable … and predictable.

This is – seriously! – one of the best arguments for promoting diversity in your project teams. A variety of different perspectives will help identify impacted people’s beliefs early enough that pre-emptive measures can be designed, tested, and implemented to neutralize probable irrational opposition.

I say all this to illustrate why deliberate behaviour change can be shockingly difficult to implement in the enterprise. It might seem weird that highly-complex changes – like switching payroll systems – can be executed with very little resistance while comparatively simple changes – like upgrading a budling’s latrines – will stop dead in the face of violent irrational resistance. It’s crucial to factor people’s inherently irrational beliefs into your project plans; if you discover that any part of your endeavour challenges people’s taboo beliefs, expect abacklash. Get ahead of it.

All that said, I’m not the least bit amused by the prospect of a female urinal existing. If this is something that some of my female friends and colleagues are interested in, then I believe we ought to try them out. Something doesn’t have to benefit me personally to earn my support. That said, I suspect that merely designing the cool new technology won’t sway enough people to make a difference. So long as anything related to urination is considered taboo by critical stakeholders, we’ll never make any headway. [4] Not here in America, at any rate.

That, in turn, is what reminded me that I don’t have a good “lock” on the British mindset. This email came from a British PR flack and was clearly intended for a British audience … not for me. Perhaps the UK is more mature about potty topics and can discuss latrine technology without collapsing into nervous giggles before succumbing to mortification. Is it? Please consider sharing your perspective with me on social media so I can learn. Just … please don’t be coy about it. Promise me you’ll give me the straight poop.

[1] Houston is, in fact, a minimum of four and a half hours drive from Dallas if you’re traveling at night, in excellent weather, and are nowhere close to a bank holiday weekend.

[2] For the benefit of my dear friends in HR, may I remind you that a humourist employs exaggeration and ridiculous examples to make a point memorable and entertaining. I haven’t headbutted a co-worker with a steel helmet since the 1980s.

[3] … possibly because we replaced our M1 “steel pots” with PASGT Kevlar helmets in the early 1990s. 😛

[4] This awful joke is intended as a tip of the Stetson to my sailor friends.  

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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