The Pervasiveness of Culture: the AirBnB definition analysis

3 minute read

A few days ago there was a great post by Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of AirBnB about their company culture, titled “Don’t fuck up the culture”. The title comes from the great advice by Peter Thiel, as short as it is crisp:

“Don’t fuck up the culture”

Couldn’t get clearer than that, right? The problem is that culture is something so powerful but at the same time so difficult to define. It’s as such because at its root there’s a very variable and complex thing: us.

Still, Brian tries to define culture, as follows:

“Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion”

This for me is incredibly fascinating because this wants to be a general definition of culture, but in reality it’s a definition of their own culture. This is a wonderful expression of how much culture is something embedded and so pervasive that isn’t even seen.

Let’s break it down:

  1. simply” — the use of the term simply already hints at a culture that wants to avoid complexity and aims for solution that don’t just work, but also feel light and straightforward. The example of an opposite culture would be using a wording like “Culture is an intertwined way”.
  2. shared” — this is a great choice of words, which in a sense is unavoidable in a definition that covers many people, but it’s still interesting that he went for a word that implies an action of the individual instead of a group definition like “a common way” or “how the group does”.
  3. way” — even without connecting this to the idea of “tao”, or the “way” in a more philosophical sense, there’s still an indication that there’s a single solution, a way, that is taken by everyone. A different culture could have avoided this word entirely, or could have gone for an opposite approach like “Culture is simply how multiple different actions can lead to…”.
  4. doing” — this is quite straightforward: they’re a culture of doing. Not thinking. Not planning. Not agreeing. Not ideas. But doing. Culture isn’t inherently doing, so it’s quite a jump to craft a definition of culture that implies doing. In
  5. passion” — what’s how their culture work: they want passion. People work there because are passionate, and they all share this motivation.

To highlight how this isn’t just an exercise, but part of AirBnB culture, let’s take a different definition of culture taken from the Oxford Dictionary:

The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.

Nowhere to be found: simply, shared, way, doing, passion. We can almost see the culture of the Oxford dictionary in this other definition: “manifestation” vs “doing” (passive), “collectively” vs “shared” (group perspective), “arts and other” vs “something” (art focus), “achievement” vs “way” (global scale).

When I work with companies that want to define company culture the point is always to start from what they have, not the rational ideal they crave. Often companies that try to come up with nice lists of words that “make” their culture fail miserably, either on the side of aspiration (this is what we’d like to be, but we can’t) or on the side of boredom (lists that could belong to any company). The culture is already there, it’s important to make it emerge.

That’s why it’s not surprising that good design – and even more good brand strategy work – when done properly can’t avoid to touch the internal culture, and potentially change it. Quoting a master:

“If a company is second rate, the logo will eventually be perceived as second rate”
— Paul Rand (1991) Logos, Flags, and Escutcheons

Culture is so pervasive that even its definition can’t avoid it.