The upper baobab – the above-ground part of culture – is what cultural books and guides often cover.
Pick up any book on the business culture of any single European nation, and you’ll find greatly detailed lists of behaviors, dress, etc. – you know, the visible parts of culture we talked about last week.
But the baobab’s canopy is only part of the magnificent tree of life. Buried below the African soil, the roots branch out into an enormous structure that you cannot see; one that is even more important to cross-cultural integration.
Invisible to the Naked Eye
Just as the roots of the baobab are hidden extensions of the tree of life, the roots of a culture are often hidden too.
But it’s worth digging up the soil to examine these roots in order to understand why certain cultural behaviors exist and how they developed.
If you’re working in a cross-cultural environment and/or immigrating to a foreign land, it’s pretty clear why this understanding is important. It’s only when you understand a culture’s underlying values that you will be able to accept and adapt enough to integrate into the culture.
For instance, the Swiss are punctual. This is demonstrated in their behavior. This “always on time” mentality is the above-ground baobab – the visible part of culture.
What are the roots – the invisible part?
The Swiss’ values are. The culture’s concept of time is the invisible part. Time is valued in Switzerland, and that valuation is made manifest in the general behaviors of society.
Another example: Americans are self-promoting. They are not often modest about their success, and some often display it or announce it, so that others know just how successful they are.
“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.” – Donald Trump, March 2011, in an interview with Good Morning America
Self-promotion is one branch of their above-ground baobab, the visible part of their culture.
And the invisible part?
Individuality is deeply ingrained in American values. It extends in the roots beneath the earth which grow into the branch of self-promotion. Being able to “stand out” in some way – be it with wealth, accomplishment, or success of any kind – is an integral part of American culture.
The Roots Grow
In any cultural baobab, the wispy branches (folkways), the sturdier branches (mores), and the trunk (taboos, laws) all grow from these well-watered roots of a culture’s values.
Values create a culture’s behaviors, norms, and traditions in a way that is not always obvious. But if you look closely enough at a culture, you can better understand how its norms and values are tied. Arriving at this understanding will greatly aid you in cross-cultural integration.