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.

Cultural Norms: What are They? And How Do They Relate to Values?

Conformity.

Last week, we talked about conforming to cultural norms. But what types of norms are we conforming to? And why and how are we conforming?

Well, to understand norms, first we must talk about values.

Values are what define a culture’s goals and ideals, and cultural norms are, in a way, these values, personified.

Values & Norms

Study.com defines norms relative to culture, thusly: “The term ‘culture’ refers to attitudes and patterns of behavior in a given group. ‘Norm’ refers to attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal, typical or average within that group.”

So, norms are more closely related to our behaviors, while values are more closely related to our attitudes, ideals, and beliefs. Both our values and norms are ingrained in us and in our society through its existing systems, such as family, the education system, and government.

The government and other higher institutions define a nation’s values, while the norms and values are implemented and taught by families and schools. Some degree of conformity in these two areas is expected in every culture. The degree of conformity is often based on survival vs. self-expression values, but conformity always defines cultural norms.

And we are often completely oblivious to the influences of both values and norms in the way we live our lives.

Different Norm Types

There are four different types of norms, which we will detail over the coming weeks.

These are:

norms

The majority culture in any nation invokes these expectations and rules, which are primarily based on their values. Behavior – such as habits, customs, traditions, and rule of law – is guided by the most prominent culture; they create the yardstick of what is considered “right” and “wrong” on the whole.

Swimming With/Against the Current

Do you follow your own culture’s norms? Do you swim with the school of fish? Or do you make a point of standing out from the crowd?

Whether you swim with or against the current, you’re making choices in defiance of your society’s values and norms, or you’re making choices in favor of them. Either way, your individuality is defined by the cultural norms of your society.

Remember, if you want to “fit in” to a foreign culture, you can look at norms as a sort of etiquette guidebook for the culture in which you choose to integrate.

Cultural Norms: Do You Conform?

Do you shake hands upon greeting? If so, do you use the right or the left? Is there a reason for this?

Do you smile a lot? Is it normal to smile at strangers in your culture? Is politeness valued by your society?

Whether you answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any of these questions, the answers are related to the norms that exist in your culture.

Are we all susceptible to cultural norms, and are you conforming to them right now?

Conformity

Conformity is expected in most cultures, but the degree of conformity is often based on the strength of a culture’s survival values vs. its self-expression values.

However, even in cultures where self-expression values are strong, individuals feel pressure to conform to some degree.

Does everyone, then, conform to norms?

It’s almost impossible not to. In the end, the degree to which one does depends on if an individual wants to ‘fit in’ or not.

Solomon Asch Study

In 1951, Solomon Asch experimented with societal pressure and its relation to conformity. Asch gave 50 male students from Swarthmore College a ‘vision test,’ in which one oblivious tester was placed amongst seven trained testers who had prepared their responses beforehand.

The students were given three lines (A, B, and C) to compare, and they had to choose which was the ‘target line.’ The answer was always obvious. Each of the trained participants would state their answer aloud, with the real participant answering last.

Of the 18 trials, the prepared group gave 12 wrong answers. What Asch found was that nearly a third of real participants conformed to the majority view, despite the fact that the majority was quite obviously wrong, with around three-fourths conforming at least once. Only a quarter of the real participants didn’t conform at all to the wrong answers. In the control group (a group with all real participants), less than 1% answered incorrectly.

Why Conform?

In their post-experiment interviews, real participants admitted that they didn’t agree with the answers of the crowd.

But they conformed to them anyway.

So, why are we so inclined to conform with something we think is wrong?

The participants expressed a fear of being thought peculiar or of being teased by their peers. Some also said that they considered that perhaps they were mistaken in their answer. The probability that an entire group answered incorrectly seemed less likely than that they’d been mistaken.

So, the study found that people conform because:

  • They want to fit in
  • They believe a group must be better informed than an individual

These are called normative and informational influences, respectively. And, in essence, they are what enforce a society’s values and norms.

Next week, we’ll talk about different types of cultural norms and what this conformity looks like. Stay tuned.

Cultural Values: What Divides Us? What Defines Us?

Values are at the core of cross cultural research.

In the 2011 abstract, The Value of Values in Cross-Cultural Research, authors Ariel Knafo, PhD, Sonia Roccas, PhD, and Lilach Sagiv, PhD, note that, “The centrality of values in cross-cultural research has more than doubled over the last three decades.”

This, according to their review, is because values are what define us, individually, and shape us, culturally.

“At the individual level,” the authors write, “values express broad, trans-situational motivational goals, affecting individuals’ interpretation of situations, preferences, choices, and actions. At the national level, values reflect the solutions groups develop in response to existential challenges and relate to the way social institutions function.”

And this is what distinguishes each individual’s values and each nation’s values from any other.

What Divides Us?

In cross cultural research, cultures are often divided according to particular sets of values.

Need an example?

Picture1

This world map, compiled by Ronald Inglehard and Christian Welzel in their article, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy,” differentiates the values of secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

What are these value sets?

  • secular-rational values – prioritize autonomy, secularism, rationality, and cosmopolitanism
  • traditional values – prioritize religion, obedience, national pride, and respect for authority
  • survival values – prioritize survival, due to its insecurity
  • self-expression values – prioritize free choice

This illustrates, as we’ve discussed in past posts, that not only do nations and individuals have sets of values, but other tightly-knit groups or subcultures – e.g. Catholics, Protestants, Confucians, Muslims, English-speakers, etc. – share core values, as well.

While many nations fit within these groupings, they slide on a spectrum of core values, depending upon how strict or lenient they are regarding secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

For instance, Spain and Croatia are pretty much smack dab in the middle of both crossroads. And as you might notice when visiting these two countries, survival and self-expression values coexist fairly harmoniously, as do traditional and secular-rational values.

However, if you visit any of the Nordic countries (particularly, Sweden), you will find their cultural values are on the far end of self-expression, as well as secular-rationalism. Someone from a nation with traditional or survivalist values – like Zimbabwe, Morocco, or Pakistan, for instance – might have a hard time integrating into cultures on the extreme end of self-expression and secularism.

What Defines You?

So, how much do our nation’s values influence our own? To what extent do the values of the subcultures we belong to impact us? And what values are we choosing individually?

We’ve discussed how important parental values are in defining the values of children during the stages of primary socialization. These are often some of the most deeply-rooted within a human being. Parents are the moral compasses of a family – and, essentially, of a society.

Cultural values might reinforce this compass or distort it, depending upon whether a child’s parents go with the tide or against it. But, essentially, an individual’s value compass is magnetized at home, after which the magnetic pull of their culture and subculture may offset it from due north. In this way, each of us is a unique cross-breed of family and society.

And this is what defines us.

Next week, we’ll talk about one of the standards by which these values are magnetized: cultural norms.