Culture Silences in Safety – Language

When culture is defined as ‘what you DO around here’ it pushes the most important element of culture (Language) to the background. This also helps Safety speak nonsense to people and to speak safety code ( ). Safety code is a form of language that describe what something is by what it isn’t (eg. ‘differently’, ‘professional’, ‘ethical’). So, without a focus on Critical Thinking ( ) it’s so easy to sell complete gobbledygook to people eg. ‘zero works’, ‘all accidents are preventable’.

The language that surrounds us when we are growing up becomes a natural part of who we are. Language is so embodied in our identity that we don’t have to ‘think’ (rationally process) to speak it. Language provides not just entry into a community, family and society but is the bedrock of all cultural meaning and transmission. If you want to demonstrate this is, just try learning a new language.

When I was in High School I studied German for 5 years and bombed out miserably in Year 12. Everyone in my Year 12 class (in South Australia) came from a German speaking background and ‘lived’ German. Back then too, language was taught as a ‘technique’ and teachers tried to teach German through declensions and grammar to try and understand German. In this way language and culture were separated under a binary assumption that they were not the same thing. Culture was relegated to Anthropology and language to Linguistics.

I learnt Greek the same way at University and neither approach ‘works’. This is because the focus is on brain-training not real learning. In such an approach when the word ‘learning’ is used it just means information processing. Memory is thought of like a muscle with a focus on strengthening and repetition as ‘learning’. When this is NOT learning. This is the most common approach practiced in safety, even Safety it speaks of ‘learning teams’. The focus is brain-centric and on the accumulation of ‘right data’ and regurgitating the ‘right’ information. This approach understands learning as an intellectual pursuit.

Such an approach divorces language from culture. In such an approach metaphor is simply a literary and grammatical ‘tool’ rather than the way we live ( ). Unfortunately, unless you ‘live’ your second language, you are not likely going to ‘learn’ it.

Unless something is integrated INTO you, enculturated IN you and becomes a way of ‘BEING’, so that it transforms you, it’s not likely that much will be ‘learned’. All learning and language is enculturated. Unless learning is ‘embodied’ and becomes a part of being so that we ‘intuit’ what we know, it is not learning.

In order to make this distinction some call this kind of learning ‘Triple Loop Learning’ (See Figure One. Triple Loop Learning) or ‘Deep Learning’ ( ). This is because the language of ‘learning’ is so misused.

A good example is the nonsense language of ‘machine learning’. The repetition of algorithms is NOT learning. A machine cannot learn because it cannot intuit (embody) what it ‘knows’ that is, embody unconscious knowing. The adaptation of a program is NOT learning. Information processing and recall is NOT learning. Further see:

Whenever I do a ‘language audit’ on site and ask safety people what safety is about, I never get the response that it is about learning (neither helping, caring or listening get a mention).

Figure One. Triple Loop Learning (Courtesy Dr Craig Ashhurst)


My youngest daughter married a Finn and Finnish is one of those languages that is so hard to learn. Yet, my 3 year old granddaughter can speak and understand it fluently. In their home Dad only speaks Finnish, and Mum speaks English. My granddaughter has ‘learned’ to ‘live’ both languages and so sounds like an Aussie and understands Aussie culture and when she goes to Finland sounds like a Finn and understands Finnish culture.

I’ve been to Finland 5 times and can say not much more than ‘hello’, ‘thanks’ and ‘goodbye’. I wrote a bit about Finnish culture and Sisu at the conclusion of Fallibility and Risk, Living With Uncertainty ( ) but I will never live as a Finn or understand what it is to be a Finn. Then when one considers he complexities of all paralinguistics, embodied language (gesture, body language and Poetics) I have absolutely no idea about being a Finn.

My little granddaughter sings and dances in Finnish on Zoom with her Finnish Granny and then prattles off Aussie slang with me on Facetime.

Language is not just about a brain technique but a cultural habit of mind. Language and culture are the flip side of the same coin.

Unfortunately, when Safety uses the word ‘learning’ and ‘culture’ it mostly refers to ‘single loop learning’ which is ‘training’ and holds to a binary notion of culture as behaviours and language as dictionary learning. Neither approach is helpful in understanding culture which is why Safety is not about ‘learning’. Of course, there is no study of learning, linguistics or culture in the safety industry. Just three of the great Cultural silences in safety. Amazing how a study in regulation, engineering and injury counting makes one expert in learning.

Culture should really be called ‘Linguaculture’ because language is so integrated in cultural knowing. Language reflects the worldview, thinking, values, ethics and politic of its speakers.

Unless language is integrated in culture and culture integrated in language, it is not likely that one is learning culture or language. Learning about culture is not learning culture. Shaules (2019) calls Linguaculture a process of ‘phagocytosis’. That is, the full absorption of something into ones’ ‘being’.

Most often when an engineer turns towards language we observe what is called ‘dictionary’ knowing. That is, language is defined ‘objectively’ and has meaning within itself. Of course, language is not objective or neutral and all language is situated culturally.

Soon in Canberra we will run face to face workshops ( ), including our module on Linguistics and Risk ( ). Several people are coming from Europe (Austria and Poland) and part of their education will be discovered in their relationships with Aussies and how we live, think and be.

Similarly, every time I go to Austria I learn very quickly that I’m not an Austrian and I can’t think, live or ‘be’ Austrian. As part of our Canberra workshops we do semiotics walks, dinners (meals) and a winery tour, lots of fun. But even those not from Canberra don’t truly ‘understand’ what it is like to live in this city. I remember last time Brian Darlington came (South African and Austrian) he spent ages in conversation at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and wrote about it in our book ( ) but it can only be an understanding about Australian First Nations People, it will never be a form of learning immersed in cultural learning.

Those coming from Europe to the workshops are good English speakers but lots of the time we need to translate much of what we talk about. I remember spending long times in the Philippines and Cambodia and the constant misunderstandings of culture and language and the continuous need for translation of language, customs and norms.

Of course, semiotics too is a language in itself and another cultural silence in safety ( ). No wonder nothing changes in the culture of safety.

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