It has the reputation among researchers of being the dullest culture on earth. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about the cubicle culture many of us have experienced. I’m talking about the Baining group of Papua New Guinea.
Professor Fajans found that work in the Baining culture was much more prevalent than play, which created an atmosphere deemed “unstudiable” by the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson. He claimed that its reluctance to say anything of interest and its failure to exhibit activity beyond the routines of daily work created “a drab and colorless existence.”
Extensive study showed that the Baining lack the social structure provided by stories, festivals and religious traditions. They are small-scale agricultural agrarians who subsist on their abilities to garden and raise animals.
They discourage any “child’s play,” which includes the natural exploration of infants. Babies who attempt to crawl and explore are picked up and restrained. Any desire to explore beyond work structures is deemed shameful.
The Baining Effect
I find a very similar informal structure in my change coaching with organizations and individuals. There is an attempt to restrain exploration by tying hands with project plans; there is shame attached to laughter in the workplace; there are attempts to squelch informal stories by having them sanitized through communications.
We become workplace dredges. We feel guilty if we’re in the hallway laughing hysterically with a friend. We go home and pull out the laptop, lest we have a playful evening with our family. We feel guilty while watching our kids play soccer and pull work out of a briefcase to make sure we are always earning our keep.
We’ve taken the play out of our day.
Where is Your Joy?
If somebody followed you around for a full year, would they have fascinating insights to report or would they come up empty-handed as did the anthropologists studying the Baining culture?
Does your organization allow play? Do you allow yourself to play? Or is the child in you bored to death?
Do you tell exciting stories about a recent risk you’ve taken? Or do you wake up every morning, eat the same breakfast, drive the same way to work, turn on your computer and eat the same lunch?
Do you ever ask a provocative question just to stimulate new thoughts?
Is your life a Disney film in technicolor or a black and white industrial film?
Play allows us to follow our souls rather than being commandeered by the ever-protective-and-negative brain, which has the job of pointing out all risks that might endanger us. Too often, we forget to play. We trade in dancing for delivery on a project.
Is all work and no play making you an honorary member of the Baining culture?