The Baobab Theory of Culture

Most folks who are interested in culture have heard about the Iceberg Theory.

The phrase was coined by Ernest Hemingway and applies to his style of writing – a.k.a. the theory of omission. But it also applies to culture.

The idea is that the deeper meaning of a story is below the surface. Or, in the theme of our blog, the deeper meaning of a culture…

Like an iceberg, that which we see of culture only makes up a small portion of the whole. What lies below is even more astounding and impactful.

But I’d like to expand on the Iceberg Theory and compare culture to a baobab.

The Baobab

We talked last week about the mythical baobab tree.

For the purpose of this theory, the baobab’s huge trunk and canopy will represent the visible part of culture.

Traditional clothing, food, art, architecture, language, gestures, appearance, behavior – this is all represented in the visible part of the baobab.

Behavior is often regulated by norms. Folkways, mores, taboos and laws are all represented above the surface.

The small branches at the edges of the canopy represent folkways, the most flexible of the norms. As the branches extend toward the trunk, they become thicker and more rigid. These are a society’s mores. They’re stricter and often based in deeper values.

And the trunk, itself? This represents a culture’s taboos and laws. Punishment for those who do not adhere to these two sets of norms is the most severe. Society members must comply, or they’ll be ostracized or imprisoned.

Know Before Traveling

While knowing the baobab – or the visible part of a culture – is only the beginning of full-on cross-cultural integration, this basic intro would probably be enough for brief travel to a foreign country or a short business trip.

For instance, if you’re traveling to Greece, it would be nice to know that their official working day ends during the early afternoon. Moreover, when formal events are held at work, they are often attended by only employees of the same rank.

Or if you’re on business in the UK, you’ll find that business culture there is quite direct. You’ll also find that the Brits are often on first-name basis with fellow colleagues and superiors. This may seem in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of their formality.

On the other hand, if business takes you to Portugal, you might be addressed very formally as “doutor” (doctor), whether you have a doctorate or not. Everyone with a university degree is honored with this title. You’ll also find that nepotism isn’t an issue in Portugal, as business and personal relationships are often intertwined.

Below the Surface

While all of these aspects are visible parts of the cultural baobab, this begs the question: what lies below the earth?

In the baobab’s case, an enormous network of roots spread into the soil as a culture’s underlying invisible values. We’ll talk about these roots next week.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.

Values: What Are They & How Do They Shape Culture?

You often hear various groups and cultures talk about their “values.”

But what are values, really?

Are they only ideals? How are they put into practice?

Values are practiced ideals; they’re principles or standards to live by. In a culture, they distinguish between what is important or unimportant. What is worth fighting for and what is not. What is good and what is evil and, correspondingly, who is good and who is evil.

Values are a culture’s unwritten rule of law. In fact, sometimes, a culture’s values influence the nation’s written laws.

Swiss Values

Let’s take a look at Swiss values, for example.

According to ediplomat, “The Swiss value cleanliness, honesty, (and) hard work…They value sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and a sense of responsibility.”

Swiss values also include environmentalism, freedom, orderliness, neutrality, and world peace. We’re also savers and are proud of the material wealth that accompanies economic responsibility.

You can see these values come to life in our culture. In the way we dress, the way we behave, the way we live.

Walk down any street in Geneva, and you’ll notice several things: gorgeous greenery, an absence of litter, Swiss people dressed clean and neat and, yes, plenty of wealth.

You can also see these values in our policies and politics.

The Swiss unadjusted unemployment rate rarely exceeds 4% and dropped to 3% in June of 2017, which is less than the average 4-12% unemployment in other developed countries. This may be partially attributed to our values of hard work and our sense of responsibility.

Being a neutral nation, we’re also not a member state of NATO. We are, however, members of the Partnership for Peace, which cooperates with NATO on crisis-management training and operations, as well as humanitarian missions.

This is how cultural values are made manifest: putting into practice the ideals that are most important to you and your broader culture.

Swiss Values-turned-Laws

You can see Swiss values represented in written law, as well.

Take jaywalking, for example.

In many countries around the world, a slap on the wrist is the most you’ll get for jaywalking. In fact, in most places, you won’t even get that – it’s acceptable to cross the street wherever and whenever you choose.

But, in Switzerland, our values of orderliness, sobriety and our sense of responsibility come into play yet again. Jaywalkers are disturbing the order of things and aren’t taking the risk of potential pedestrian fatality seriously. Therefore, jaywalkers are fined on the spot by police if caught in the act.

This is just one of many written laws and unwritten norms that exemplify our values in Switzerland. Next week, we’ll talk about the difference between individualist and collectivist cultures and where their values diverge.

The Cult of Company Culture

Last week, we talked about how national cultures can be divided into regional cultures and subcultures. This goes a step further.

Companies have their own culture, as well.

That’s because whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture. And the way that companies build is often with this cultish veneration of shared ideals – ideals they wish each and every one of their employees to hold true.

Company culture has become a selling point for employment. When Starbucks or Tesla is hoping to hire the best, they must promise a thriving ecosystem to work within…an ecosystem with plenty of incentives and inclusivity.

Here’s a look at how some companies got it right, and where others have got it wrong.

Popular Company Cultures

Google famously treats its employees to an “adult playground,” with perks like gyms, swimming pools, video games, nap pods, free haircuts, on-site physicians. You name it.

This has driven Google’s success, encouraging employees to be more creative, productive and to think outside the box.

Netflix, as well, have become renowned for their company culture manifesto. They strive for inclusivity and are averse to the so-called “brilliant jerk” that you might identify with Silicon Valley.

In fact, they only retain those who pass a “keeper test” – that is, managers choose whether or not they’d fight to keep their respective employees, and if they wouldn’t, they’re let go. This way, their culture is cultivating only the best of the best.

Netflix’s primary aim is to motivate its workers, as is shown in its most recent culture doc, which closes with this stanza by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship,

don’t drum up the people

to gather wood, divide the

work, and give orders.


Instead, teach them to yearn

for the vast and endless sea.

Pretty inspiring stuff, right?

Unpopular Company Cultures

Like Google or Netflix, you can build up your employees through incentives, inspiration, and inclusivity…or, like Uber, you can build a toxic company culture through ineffective human resources, vague company values, and company crisis after company crisis.

Uber’s company culture has been described as “aggressive” and “unrestrained.” In this past year, sexual discrimination and harassment led to an internal crisis that has played out in the media.

However, with new leadership on board, the company’s values are changing, as is Uber’s ability to surface problems more quickly. The company can still evolve its culture, turn it around, and build something that its employees are proud to build with them.

Company Culture -> National Culture

As with company cultures, values can either be promoted or condemned by national culture. Management is the driving force in actively shaping their company culture’s values, and a nation’s leaders – politicians, scientists, writers, artists, actors, business leaders, or other influential peoples – shape ours.

Next week, we’ll talk about these values, how they are formed, and what they mean to you.