Communities are messy. What makes them messy is the relationships between the humans who make up those communities. Humans are complex beings, each with their own sets of experiences and assumptions which they bring into a relationship, and when the underlying assumptions about how the world works do not match, we get into trouble.

One colleague of mine has described culture as "the way that humans in a community actually do things." The things we say and do consciously are the tip of the iceberg—many of our reactions and feelings are unconscious, and based on underlying values and assumptions about society which we may not even be aware we have.

Editor's Note: Speaker notes for FOSDEM 2017 talk in Community DevRoom (video included).

Culture is the collection of values and experiences that each individual has had in their lives, which means that each individual has their own "culture." But many of those values and experiences come from shared group experiences—growing up in a family, a town, a culture, belonging to a religion—which we can generalize to make broader statements about culture. There are many aspects of a culture that have been identified by sociologists. Among the most important are social structure (relationship to family, peers), religion, the arts, customs and traditions, government, business practices, and language.

To succeed as communities, we need to be aware of, and mitigate for, cultural differences, to ensure that our communities are welcoming and productive. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy as just saying it. Overcoming cultural differences takes a lot of work and understanding.

This series of articles explores some of the theoretical work that has been done by sociologists and behavioral psychologists into the nature of culture, and understanding cultural differences, and then offers some practical lessons which can be applied to community projects to encourage more cultural diversity.

In part 1, we explore why cultural differences cause so much conflict. In part 2, we explore what makes up a culture, based on the work of sociologists. In part 3, we get practical, and talk about how to make cultural assumptions explicit rather than implicit in community interactions. Finally, in part 4, we talk about some very practical lessons that can be applied in every open source community which will give you a starting point for improving cultural diversity in your community.

The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality

In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote the famous paper "The Tragedy of the Commons." Hardin contends that in any fixed resource that is shared by a group, it is in each group member’s best interests to act in a way that does not benefit the group. For example, the sea is a limited resource shared by fishing nations. If the sea is over-fished, eventually there will not be enough fish to sustain a fishing industry in any country (not to mention the damage to the habitat), but at any one time, the cost of catching one extra fish to a fisherman is less than the reward of selling that extra fish. It is in each fisherman’s interests to fish as much as they can (all else being equal), until there are no more fish for anyone. This is the tragedy of the commons.

Hardin suggests a number of solutions to the problem, one of which is to ensure that there are no commons, that ownership of land be private and individual, rather than shared. Another is to elect a council of elders who will ensure conformance to agreed-upon quotas for the usage of the land. Yet another is to use either an autocratic government or a powerful religion to enforce behaviours and norms that keep the commons sustainable. But what happens when people, each having solved the problem of managing a commons in their own way, meet in a new commons?

In "Moral Tribes," Joshua Greene explores exactly this hypothesis in what he calls "the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality." Four nations, each with their own commons and solution, are separated by a mighty forest, which one day burns down and becomes arable land, and there the nations meet. The capitalist North, where all property is private, quickly starts to colonize the "unclaimed land" and gets into a fight with the Southern communists, who insist that this is "the people’s land." The religious population to the West takes offense at an Eastern boy walking around with a bare head and a girl who is singing on Tuesdays, and the resulting quarrel results in many deaths. And on it goes, as people with different values and belief systems misunderstand each other about how the world should work.

What goes into "culture," what leads to conflict between different cultures, and how can we mitigate the effects for our communities?

The next article in this series explores six dimensions of culture defined by sociologist Geert Hofstede and what each can tell about a culture.