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.

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.