What to do with Tradition

Our ancestors struggled with many of the same problems that we face. Their solutions are not always the best, but not always the worst either. Newer is not necessarily better. Find out why! 

By Mark D. Harris

Last week I was on a mission trip to Chicago with the youth choir from our church, and one of my favorite parts was the chance to talk with the kids. I have been going for several years and have seen youth born since 1993 on these journeys. Also for the past three weeks, my family and I have hosted three women in their early to mid-20s working in Washington DC as part of a journalism internship for World Magazine. These groups represent the last half of the generation that demographers call the Millennials, roughly defined as people born between 1980 and 2000.

As we talked, one theme that arose was a tendency among some to dislike tradition. This theme is at odds with some data indicating that Millennials seek tradition, but the difference may be in semantics. Since in the course of normal conversation few people clearly define their terms, and we didn’t either, it is not certain what each person in my non-scientific sample meant. However it was apparent that each speaker had a slightly different definition, many relating the word “tradition” to the phrase “we’ve always done it this way.” Since authors from Tom Peters (born 1942) to Colin Powell (born 1937) have warned readers not to blindly adopt traditional ways of doing things, it is worth asking ourselves“What should we do with tradition?”

As with any discussion, the first priority is to define tradition. Merriam Webster online defines it as “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tradition).” Using this definition, disliking tradition is similar to disliking air, because tradition permeates everything we are and do. The languages we speak, the places we live and the food we eat are heavily influenced by tradition. Not all traditions are so fundamental, however.

Advantages of Traditions

Traditions arise and endure because they meet a need of the people who developed them. Women have traditionally worn dresses or skirts because anatomical requirements for urination, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth make such clothing more practical. Men have traditionally worn trousers because they do not have the same physical needs and because running, jumping and riding horses, activities common in hunting and in battle, are easier in pants.

An estimated 70-90% of people worldwide are right hand dominant. When marching or riding on roads in antiquity, soldiers and travelers preferred to stay on the left so that they had more space to defend themselves with their sword, held in the right hand, if attacked from the road. Since most traffic was on the left hand side, cities and empires codified reality with law. To this day members of the former British Commonwealth nations drive on the left hand side of the road. However in America people drive their cars on the right hand side of the road, probably because early wagons had no driver’s seat, so wagon drivers sat on the left rear horse of the team and wielded the whip in their right hand. This tradition also met a need.

Traditions serve to communicate. The marathon has been a popular long distance race for at least 100 years. Its name refers to the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) and its distance is roughly the distance run by the Greek messenger Pheidippides to announce the victory to the city of Athens. When someone today mentions a marathon, listeners immediately know that he or she is referring to a running race of 26.2 miles with its origins in ancient Greek tradition. In another example, the Battle of the Alamo was a siege and massacre of Texan defenders by Mexican troops under General Santa Anna in 1836. The phrase “Remember the Alamo” became shorthand for strength, honor and sacrifice in American military parlance. People and groups with shared traditions find it easier to communicate than those without, even if they speak the same language.

Traditions also serve to unite. Family traditions at Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and other holidays help form the glue that holds families together through good and bad times. The traditional wedding ceremony is an often expensive and public commitment made by bride and groom, and by their families and friends, to make this marriage work. Naval traditions, such as the ringing of a bell at retirement ceremonies, reminiscent of ringing when a senior officer arrived at and departed his ship, help change individual recruits from varied backgrounds into united sailors.

Despite our human tendency to think that our ancestors were inferior to us, in reality they lived their lives and adapted to their environment at least as well as we do. Traditions have advantages.

Disadvantages of Traditions

Traditions may cease to work. For centuries the United States had rules and laws relating to horse drawn carriages. Drivers, builders, passengers, law makers and law enforcers had roles to play in the enterprise. Then within a few short years in the early 20th century, the industry vanished, superseded by “horse-less carriages”. Swiss watchmakers were the world leaders in watch technology in the 1960s, but with the advent of the quartz watch in the 1970s, Japanese watchmakers such as Casio and Seiko dominated the market. The mechanical watch on which the Swiss had built their industry for centuries was overshadowed in the blink of an eye. In both cases, the environment changed radically and the old traditions, their “way of doing business”, could no longer compete.

While traditions admit some, they exclude others. While “Remember the Alamo” was a rallying cry for Americans, helping them to be united and to communicate better, it ostracized Mexicans. This Us-Them mentality ultimately harms both us and them, as it is generally better to get along with everyone if possible.

Some traditional beliefs are simply wrong. Before 1903 many were convinced that man could never fly, and before 1969 the idea of a man walking on the moon was ludicrous. Women were believed to be irrational due to their hormones; two women were found innocent of murder charges in England in 1851 due to temporary insanity from menstruation. People from races other than the majority have frequently been seen as inferior, such as blacks in the American South. These traditions have been disregarded, and rightfully so.

What do we do with traditions?

Some traditions are a matter of personal preference and will endure as long as people enjoy them. Whether a church sings hymns or choruses is largely dependent on its congregation. In general, however, there are three things that any individual or group can do with each of their identified traditions.

1. Eliminate it without replacement.
2. Replace it.
3. Keep it – either unchanged or modified.

Some traditions are no longer functional and hold no value for communication or unity. Procedures for using carbon paper to make duplicate copies of typewritten documents fall into this category. Some traditions are outdated and need to be replaced to address new realities. Lamps powered by gas or kerosene have been largely replaced by electric lights, but many still exist. Still other traditions need to stay the way they are; British will drive on the left and Americans on the right for the foreseeable future.

Practically speaking, what do we do when our company has a problem and an old timer says “we have always done it this way.”
1. Ignore the guy, because times are different now and we need to change our previous traditions.
2. Laud the guy, because we need to stick with what worked in the past and brought us the success we’ve seen so far.
3. Take the guy’s recommendations, add it to the list of possible courses of action, evaluate it just as rigorously as we do with all other potential courses of action in light of the changing conditions, and select whatever fits best.
Perhaps the third option is, almost always, the right way to go.


Wrong traditions should be discarded, just like all errors, but most traditions endure because they work, or worked. Many new ideas, no matter how good they sound, have not and will not work. Each individual and each organization must decide what they will do with each tradition they encounter, but they should not take that decision lightly. In the past 6,000 years of human history, only technology has really changed. Relative to technology, the natural world, human physiology, and human nature have not. Therefore to reject tradition simply because it is old is foolish. New ideas are indispensable, but time-proven remedies still hold great promise for the future.

One thought on “What to do with Tradition

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