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.

When in Rome…How to Adjust to Cross-Cultural Norms 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

We’ve all heard this motto, and if you want to integrate into a foreign country, it’s true…to a point.

The social norms we’ve talked about within the past few weeks are integral to culture.

Without norms, there’s no conformity. And without conformity, there is no culture.

But, when you take the giant leap that is living in a foreign culture, how much are you expected to conform? How much do you want to conform?

What are you willing to “give up” in order to fit in?

Do As The Romans Do

Like many things in life, the answer to these questions depend on how much you personally want to change to fit in. The degree of your integration also depends on what you are willing to accept about your new culture and what you’re unwilling to adapt to or adopt.

Accepting is the first step when deciding just how much to “do as the Romans do.” And when you take Accepting certain social norms a step further to Adapting, you’ll have an even more successful integration…but this may depend upon your comfort with the social norms to which you’re adapting.

Consider the level of severity of the norms. Accepting and adapting to laws and taboos are a definite must if you wish to integrate properly, because they are the more severe social norms.

To a lesser but very real extent, one should adapt to mores and folkways, as well. However, the latter two have less severe consequences.

…But Don’t Overdo It

While adapting, you might be at risk for over-adapting.

In a Harvard Business Review article by Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, Molinsky notes that he often sees individuals over-adapt cross-culturally in business culture and in academia. He calls it “over-switching.”

“Individuals attempt to adapt their behavior to match a particular culture but end up pushing too far, making larger mistakes than if they had just stayed true to themselves,” he writes.

When adjusting to the often less formal U.S. standards in academia, he sees students from more formal cultures “inaccurately calibrate” to being more informal than standard U.S. norms in class, in interviews, and in cover letters.

For example, Molinsky writes, “Students from countries where self-promotion is taboo learn that it’s required in the U.S., but don’t quite understand to what extent self-promotion is acceptable.”

They then lay it on thick, so to speak, and overly self-promote, in an attempt to adapt.

Awareness is key to knowing not to overswitch. And by Taking Action and looking for a zookeeper to guide you, you’ll be able to calibrate your adaption more precisely and “do as the Romans do” even more naturally.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock 

Planning to move to a new country, integrate into a new culture? 

Will you remember that you can’t jaywalk in Switzerland? That it’s taboo for women to drive in Saudi Arabia? That European nudity mores are far less strict than those in the U.S. or many other places?  

Attempting to adjust to cultural norms might be surprising at first. In fact, you might get full-on culture shock. 

What is culture shock? 

The SHOCK 

Culture shock is a disorientating feeling of unfamiliarity that travelers or those integrating into another culture often experience. It comes in waves, and while it will dissipate after years of living in a foreign land, it may never leave entirely. You’re bound to continue discovering things about a new culture long after you’ve spent time there. 

But there are stages of shock that lead to some semblance of Acceptance. 

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period 

When you first arrive somewhere, you will probably experience a “honeymoon period.” You’ll be in love with most things and curious, because everything is new. You won’t know the harsher sides of the culture or the faux pas you may soon commit or the criticisms you may face. 

Global Perspectives describes this period as follows: “The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive during which travelers become infatuated with the language, people and food in their new surroundings.” 

Sounds beautiful. But…

Stage 2: The Pressure Cooker 

After a time, the frustrations slip in. Just like with any relationship, you start noticing the culture’s flaws. Things about the culture may upset you.  

They don’t queue up properly, they don’t arrive to meetings on time, no one speaks YOUR language.  

Remember, you’re viewing this culture through your own cultural lens, not theirs. So, all of these cultural differences build up in the pressure cooker and start to shock you. 

Stage 3: The Conformation  

While you can always increase the pressure by butting heads with your new culture, you could also try embracing it. Conforming – at least somewhat – to a new culture is essential to cross-cultural integration. 

Start learning the language and become familiar with the world around you. This will often lead to… 

Stage 4: Acceptance 

Acceptance is not the final stage in cross-cultural integration. But it’s one of the most essential stages in overcoming culture shock. Once you start to accept the culture you’re living in as it is, you’ll no longer feel quite so much pressure or frustration as when the shock first electrocuted you. 

But how and what social norms and values to conform to and accept? We’ll talk more about that next week. 

Step 4 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adopting

Adopting a child isn’t an easy process, so imagine adopting an entire culture.

To adopt means “to take up or start to use or follow (an idea, method, or course of action)” or “to take on or assume (an attitude or position).” So in relation to cultural integration, adopting can be defined as taking on the ideas and methods, as well as the attitudes and positions of a culture.

This may not be easy to do, nor is it absolutely necessary to adequate integration if you are temporarily living in a foreign culture.

However, after Awareness, Accepting, and Adapting, Adopting is one of the final steps to complete cultural integration.

Do I have to adopt the entire culture?

It’s unlikely that you’ll adopt every aspect of a new culture as your own, but as with adapting, adopting some parts of your host culture will enable integration.

It’s up to you to choose which parts of a culture you’d like to adopt. In this way, adopting a culture is unique to everyone.

To University of Illinois Multicultural Communications Professor, Dr. Elaine Yuan, adopting a culture “means to know the local language well in order to express oneself freely, to know the local social psychology and etiquettes well in order to make friends, build social support and feel comfortable in this foreign social environment.”

In the Life Made Simple blog, Yuan – who is originally from Beijing, China – credits communication with locals and the willingness to learn as incredibly helpful to the adoption process.

What types of things can I adopt?

There are so many beautiful aspects of a foreign culture you might choose to adopt.

Some great practices include:

  • The Navajo tradition of celebrating a baby’s first laugh by throwing a party…while the person who made the baby laugh foots the bill
  • The April 23rd celebration in Barcelona called “The Day of the Book and the Rose,” in which women gift men with a book and are given a rose in return…or the other way around, if you’re nontraditional
  • The Finnish custom of providing pregnant mothers with a gift box of essentials – onesies, diapers, bath products, bedding, etc. – which, according to the BBC, is “a tradition that dates back to the 1930s…designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life”

All aspects and practices of a culture are up for adoption. And choosing to integrate these into your own life will make you feel one with a foreign culture.

How do I adopt?

To adopt, all you must do is put another culture’s ideas, methods, attitudes, positions, or traditions into practice. If you live long enough in a foreign culture, doing so needn’t be forced. There’s no method to getting there, but the steps of awareness, accepting and adapting will certainly lead naturally to adopting.

With time and openness, these last steps of integration will develop organically.

Step 5 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Taking Action by Learning & Sharing

Whether you’re an expat in a foreign country or working with expats in your own, integration requires action.

Successfully managing or working across cultures necessitates planning; not just business planning, but planning for how to react to those all-too-painful monkey moments.

When relocating abroad, your company will likely provide some type of pre-departure cross-cultural skills training. Such guidance can help significantly in adjusting to a new culture. However, cross-cultural training is not guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed to be effective.

Instead, most successful managers take cross-cultural integration into their own hands, navigating the steps of Awareness, Accepting, Adapting, Adopting, and Taking Action, with the last step being the most hands-on.

Taking action involves two action-packed tasks: Learning and Sharing.

We’ll discuss both briefly in this post and cover them in more detail over the next several weeks.

Learning

When you look at all the intricate details of a culture, you might grow overwhelmed with just how much there is to learn. The task seems nearly impossible and seeing it as such can be a setback to integration.

Instead, break down learning into the following three steps so that it seems a little less daunting:

  • Learn Language – Communication is essential to integration, so language learning should be high on your to-do list.
  • Learn Religion – Learning about religion will help you better understand the values and norms of a culture.
  • Learn History – The same goes for learning a country’s history. Some knowledge of your host country’s past will help place some of the local’s traditions and habits in historical context.

Sharing

You shouldn’t try and integrate on your own; in fact, doing so is counterintuitive. The whole point of integrating into a foreign culture is to make connections. That’s where sharing comes in!

  • Seeking Friends – Making friends with the locals will not only take some of the stress off your initial culture shock, but it will also aid in cross-cultural understanding.
  • Sharing Food – Sharing in each other’s food culture is a great way to ease into deeper-rooted cultural differences.
  • Looking for your Zookeeper – Every monkey needs a zookeeper. The best zookeeper is one who may know enough about your culture to help you integrate into their own. They will be your veritable tour guide in this foreign land, as it is their home.

Tune in over the next several weeks, as we’ll discuss learning and sharing in more detail and offer advice on how best to approach each.

Step 2 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Accepting

Last week, we talked about awareness. Awareness of culture differences throws a fork in the road: once you’re aware of differences, you can either tolerate or be intolerant toward cultural values and norms.

This is where acceptance comes in.

Acceptance plays a huge role in your cultural integration. To be successful, you must accept the culture into which you’re integrating. If you reject it, then you will ultimately fail in this foreign culture.

But, then again, there will be things you willingly accept and things you morally reject.

What Must You Accept?

A myriad of cultural values and norms must be accepted if you want to integrate into a culture. Some will be easy; others will be hard. Here are some examples.

Easy to accept:

Hard to accept:

Whether it’s adapting to the time management mantra of “it will get done when it gets done” in cultures like Nepal or India or accepting that South Koreans eat dog meat or that the French eat horse meat, you must accept that things are morally sound in some countries, even when they’re unsound in your own.

How Do You Accept Something You Morally Reject?

If you have ethical issues with the cultural norm, you can draw the line at accepting another’s culture instead of adopting it.

For example, let’s talk about headscarves. Women from Western cultures often morally reject the idea of wearing the Muslim hijab. Some see it as oppressive and as a way to control women and their human rights.

As reported by Independent, in 2016 an entire Air France cabin crew refused to fly to Iran when they were ordered by the airline chief to wear headscarves upon disembarking the flight in Tehran.

When venturing into a country like Iran or Saudi Arabia, not only might a Western woman feel uncomfortable wearing the hijab, but she might feel as though she’s complicit in what she views as oppression of women by following this custom.

If they reject this custom, then they won’t be able to do business in this country, as happened in the case of Marie Le Pen, France’s far-right presidential candidate, when she refused to wear a headscarf on her visit to Lebanon in February.

According to The Washington Post, “Marine Le Pen walked away from a meeting with Lebanon’s top Sunni Muslim leaders after she refused to wear a headscarf. The move sparked an outcry across the Arab world.”

The question is: is it worth it to spark an outcry?

You Draw the Line

As with most things, it depends on the situation and your own personal standards. YOU draw the line between what you culturally accept, what you adopt, and how far you choose to integrate into a culture.

You may come to accept things as small as greetings and time management, but those that touch upon a moral obligation will be harder to accept or adopt. It’s up to you to draw that line for yourself.

I’ll tell you how I drew my own line next week.

 

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness

What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one in which the waves are warmer or colder, one in which the fish are either all the same size and shade of neon, or where there are many different sizes, shapes, colors, and species?

How would you react to the change in the tide?

You’d likely feel like a fish out of water.

Heightened Awareness

When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened, because everything that’s going on around us is all too different. And when something is a tiny bit off, it feels uncanny.

This can make us uncertain of our environment and uncomfortable in our own skin. Depending on the type of person you are – whether you’re adaptable or one who rarely leaves his/her indentation on the couch – the distinct awareness of all that is different may trickle in, little by little, or it may blast you with immediate discomfort and leave you soaking in anxiety.

Yes, living and managing in a foreign culture can be overwhelming. But it’s not impossible, even for those who live for their comfort zone.

The key is to use your spidey senses for good. Being culturally aware of your surroundings and behavior can help you limit – or even eliminate – the “monkey moments” you may encounter.

Monkey Moments

What’s a monkey moment?

Remember last week, when I said that you are the monkey in the zoo? Well, a “monkey moment” is when your monkey-ness is made clear and apparent to your host culture.

Your hosts are the spectators, remember; they’re the normal ones, the humans. So they’re watching and waiting for you to make a mistake, to behave like a monkey. They expect it from you. The moment you drop the ball, forget to be culturally aware, and start to fling your poo – that’s when they’ll see you for what you are.

While this isn’t to say you must abandon your culture, else your hosts won’t accept you, this is to say that being culturally aware will make you a more effective leader and integrator in a foreign culture.

Making Your Awareness Actionable

When you first arrive to your host country, you will see yourself as normal and the environment/the “other” as strange. This is instinctive. But you must remember:

What seems unfamiliar is not necessarily unnatural.

Knowing this will help you develop cultural sensitivity, which you’ll need in order to make your awareness actionable. I’ll discuss how to do that in next week’s blog.

Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses

It’s human nature to consider yourself and your culture “normal,” and others as strange or foreign. Because they are just that – foreign to you.

But believe it or not, you are not “normal.” Not necessarily, anyway.

Normal behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and ways are relative to culture. Culture shapes our world and our worldview. What is considered normal or preferred in one culture will be viewed as abnormal and odd in another.

The following three tips will help you view others without judgment, even while looking through your own culture-tinted glasses.

Tip 1: Remember YOU are the Monkey

In my book, I am the Monkey, I break down what it means to integrate into a new culture through a zoo analogy.

When you enter a foreign culture, you may feel like the spectator in the zoo – the human, not the animal. You might believe yourself normal and even superior to the culture around you, while considering your colleagues all odd ducks. But, in reality, you are the monkey. You’re the “abnormal” one.

While you judge the culture into which you’re integrating, it’s important to remember that you’re in their territory. They’re the normal ones here, and you are the monkey that’s out of place.

Remind yourself this, as you don your culture-tinted glasses: whenever you’re a guest in a foreign land, you are being judged according to their cultural values and norms (which we’ll discuss later on in this blog).

Tip 2: Take Baby-steps to Integrate

A monkey who starts learning how to get around isn’t likely to be swinging from limb to limb like Tarzan straight away. Don’t get frustrated by this, and don’t lash out at your host country’s culture.

That’s easier said than done. You will get frustrated at times – with yourself, with your hosts, with the culture – but don’t allow that frustration to become a brick wall to successful integration.

Make an effort to learn the language and customs. These are the first baby-steps to learning the culture and viewing it without judgment.

Tip 3: Remove Your Culture-tinted Glasses

Once you’ve begun the process of integration, it will soon be time to remove your culture-tinted glasses. And that’s what this blog is all about: helping you to live and manage across cultures by integrating to the point that you start to see the culture through its own eyes, instead of your own near-sighted bias.

You can do this through the five steps outlined in my book:

no_monkey_character_CMYK-02

I’ll talk about these steps in greater detail over the coming weeks.