The Roots of the Baobab: The Invisible Part of Culture

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.


The Swiss

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.

The American

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.

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? 


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. 

Norms & Laws: Right vs. Illegal 

Cutting in a queue. 

Breastfeeding in public. 

These are folkways and mores – both social norms that aren’t accompanied by powerful consequences.  

If you did either of these things in a culture that doesn’t accept it, someone might give you is a dirty look or, at worst, you might be ostracized. But, it’s unlikely that you’ll suffer punishment for violating either of these norm types. 

Laws, on the other hand, are the very definition of social norms that cannot be crossed without punishment: they define what is right versus what is illegal. 

Legal Norms 

Laws are social norms, formally written and enforced by the state. They distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable human behavior in a society, and they also define the sentencing process and punishments for these behaviors. 

Any given culture or nation normally has a legislative branch that creates the laws. They are the social norm directors in this respect. 

Police and other law enforcement officials crack down on those who offend these laws. They are the social norm enforcers. 

Judges, juries, and the courts then lay down the law, correcting those offenders. They are the social norm punishers.

Treating infractions of legal norms with imprisonment and fines pressures members of a society to comply with and conform to the accepted norms 

Taboos -> Laws 

Many taboos become law. For instance, in Muslim countries, it is taboo for Mohammed to be depicted in illustrations, and it is also taboo for women to drive. These taboos then may cross into written law, either directly or indirectly. 

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, although there is no written law against female drivers, locally issued licenses are required for driving, and they aren’t issued to women. This makes female driving illegal in effect, which corresponds with the social taboo. 

Some American examples of taboos crossing into law have to do with the policing of dress code. Believe it or not, in 2014, a saggy pants ban was passed in Florida, and other cities followed suit. Towns in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York also banned women from wearing shorts in the 30s and 40s. 

Mores and folkways, which can be offensive to some, do not often cross this threshold into law.  

For instance, public breastfeeding. In America, the social nudity mores might cause some to cringe when a woman breastfeeds in public; however, it’s not illegal to do so (with the exception of these states) and many women do.  


Along with the other three social norm types, laws are the most restrictive and the most effective in defining a culture’s conformity. Without conformity of some kind, culture would not exist. 

Norms & Taboos: Right vs. Forbidden

You cannot depict Mohammed in any form in a Muslim culture.

You cannot handle meat, fish, or eggs as a Brahmin in Hindu society.


Because both are taboo.

Taboos are a type of social norm which are far more serious than folkways or mores. They are so entrenched in a culture’s DNA that the behaviors are inherently banned.

Unlike folkways (right vs. rude) and mores (right vs. wrong), taboos are completely forbidden.

Religious Imagery

Jesus Christ is often represented in icons, sculptures, paintings, and other religious artworks.

Buddha is depicted as a rotund man, frequently in meditation and at peace with the world.

Various Hindu gods and goddesses are shown in full color at religious temples and in books.

However, as with many Islamic traditions, it is strictly taboo for anyone to depict the prophet Mohammed, because doing so is thought to “encourage the worship of idols,” as the BBC puts it.

This taboo is so strict that it hedges into law (a social norm we’ll discuss next week) and, if violated, is met with a death sentence.

This illustrates how serious taboos can be. Along with laws, they are the strictest social norms of any given society.

Food Taboos

Food taboos appear in most societies, as well. These, again, can often be the result of religious doctrine.

As Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow writes in his 2009 article, “Food taboos: their origins and purposes”:

“Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. Dietary rules and regulations may govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and – in traditional societies – preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc.”

The author goes on to say that food taboos are illogical when compared with each other, as one group might consider a food “unfit” for consumption, while another group deems it fit. And both groups survive. On the surface, there seems to be no logical explanation for why certain foods might be harmful for one human and perfectly safe for another.

However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a culture’s history often explains its dietary taboos and customs.

One example given is Jewish dietary laws, which include fasting days and kosher eating, along with other traditional unifying food taboos.

As Benno Meyer-Rochow notes:

“Any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of ‘belonging’.”

This is the very definition of social norms, in a nutshell. They maintain identity, provide cohesion, and enable members to belong to something bigger.

Norms & Mores: Right vs. Wrong

Are you able to talk back to your grandpa?

Is your culture gay-friendly?

What is your society’s stance on pre-marital cohabitation?

Can women in your culture go topless at the beach?

The answers to these questions relate to your cultural mores. Mores are the strongest social norms, because they’re based on the moral judgments of the society in which you live.

Mores inform society how to behave, and this is all based in the moral values of the culture. Do not kill, do not commit adultery, respect your elders. In many cultures, mores are tied closely with values, just like folkways…but they are different than folkways.

Mores vs. Folkways

How do mores differ?

As shared by Puja Mondal in yourarticlelibrary, according to Giddings and Halt (1906), “a practical distinction between folkways and mores is that violation of a folkway is generally met with laughter.”

However, the social ostracism that someone who crosses a mos (mores, singular) might meet can be much more severe.

For instance, whereas someone who always cuts the queue in the UK would simply be an irritation to those around him, someone who goes nude at a non-nudey beach in the UK would be violating a mos.


Depending on your culture’s dominant religions – and the degree to which these religions dictate societal norms, values, and behaviors – some mores may be determined by religious doctrine.

One example is cohabitation. A number of religions prohibit moving in with a partner before marriage. If you come from a culture with strict mores on the subject, others may look badly on you, tell you off, or even ostracize you for moving in with your partner.

The behavior is considered immoral and, therefore, a stain on the soul, and the reactions by the transgressor’s friends and family are meant to shame the behavior and make the individual alter it accordingly.

In a number of Western cultures, it is, for the most part, acceptable to cohabitate with a partner before marriage, unless one is brought in a strict religious family. In many Arab nations, it’s unacceptable and, therefore, uncommon.

This is what decides a culture’s mores.

Public Nudity

Another example is public nudity. American culture finds public nudity sexually-provocative and offensive, so most would be shocked if someone showed up at a beach in his birthday suit.

In a number of European countries, however, public nudity is much more lenient. Men might swim in the nude, women might go topless. And in Asia, women and men are often publically nude at their separate spas or saunas.

Even in traditional Africa, where sexual mores are strict, a woman might go topless. This is because breasts are not considered sexual or indecent. Their primary use is functional – for feeding babies – and so is looked at as such.

Right vs. Wrong

Unlike folkways, which distinguish between what is “right” and what is “rude,” mores distinguish between what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

And mores impact our society to a much higher degree than do folkways. As thoughtco puts it: “Mores exact a greater coercive force in shaping our values, beliefs, behavior, and interactions.”

Think about your own cultural mores and how they shape your behaviors.

Norms & Folkways: Right vs. Rude

Have you ever worn your outdoor shoes indoors in Japan?

Have you ever been ten minutes late for a meeting in Switzerland?

If so, then you’ve infringed on these two nations’ norms – and, specifically, on their folkways.

Folkways are norms that are traditional customs or conventional standards that a culture deems socially acceptable.

Folkways distinguish between what is considered right and what is considered rude. Right and rude are both based upon cultural values.

Paying the Tab

Say, you’re visiting your Chinese friends in Chengdu. They invite you out for a meal, and you pull out your wallet to pay your tab.

This would be considered rude in Chinese culture. The host paying for the group tab is their folkway.

  • Westerner Cultures – usually expect to pay for themselves, unless otherwise agreed upon. This ties in with the Western values of independence and individualism.
  • Eastern Cultures – usually consider it an honor for one individual to pay for the entire tab. Honor is a greatly valued characteristic in Chinese and other Eastern societies.

Shaking Hands

You may be thinking, “How many ways are there to shake a hand?”

In fact, handshakes have distinctly different folkways across cultures.

  • Western Cultures – a firm handshake and eye contact is an appropriate greeting in many Western cultures, with the dominant hand being extended.
  • Asian Cultures – a two-handed shake is a sign of respect, while a one-hand shake is considered both very rude and superior.
  • Middle Eastern Cultures – no one shakes with the left hand, as it’s considered “unclean”; if you go in for a left-handed shake, it’s looked at as an insult. It is also inappropriate for the opposite sex to shake hands.

Waiting in Line

While waiting in line might seem like it’s a universal norm, it certainly isn’t.

  • Some Western Cultures – queue up in a straight line. It’s considered polite. If you try to cut, you might be shouted at or, at the very least, glared at. Places like Canada, the US, Britain, and Switzerland take queue etiquette more seriously than others.
  • Some European Cultures – queue more loosely. In fact, the queue looks more like milling about. Russians, Germans, and Italians, for instance, are not known for their strict queuing skills.
  • Some Asian Cultures – do not strictly queue either. China and India, for instance, don’t abide by the queue. Japan is one of the exceptions.

Right vs. Rude

While neither paying the tab, shaking hands the wrong way, nor cutting in line is considered taboo (another variety of social norm which we’ll talk about later), you may be considered rude if you don’t follow these cultural folkways.

Folkways distinguish between rude and right behavior. They define proper etiquette and politeness. And they inflict a social pressure on individuals to behave and interact according to the accepted folkways of the society.

The difference between folkways and the other norms we will soon talk about is that serious consequences are unlikely to result from any violation of this type of cultural norm. More often, you’ll just be considered impolite.

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


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 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:


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 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.