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? 

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. 

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.

Cohabitation

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?

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.

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.

What Makes a ‘Face’: Losing Face, East vs. West

When you hear the term “losing face,” more often than not, you associate it with Eastern cultures. But people of every culture have “face” that they can either lose or save.

Basically, “face” is pride, esteem, and reputation, which is interpreted and determined in different ways, depending on the culture in which you live. Face is, in short, the idea that you must behave or achieve in a certain manner to preserve your image. What makes up your “face” and how to “save” it depends on what your culture values.

Face: East

Tradition is greatly emphasized in Eastern cultures, and face can be had by birth (i.e. if you were born into a family of status or wealth).

Last week, we talked about how collectivist societies tend to value group harmony over individualism. Personal ambition or success is much less important than improving the whole.

This prevents individualist characteristics from being fostered from youth. For instance, I’ve been told by Chinese students that they receive lower marks or fails on essays or exams if they contradict the teacher’s opinion or the culturally accepted sentiment on any given topic, no matter how well argued. For this reason and for similar standards set during primary socialization, you find fewer who will “rock the boat,” so to speak, in collectivist countries than you might in their capitalist counterparts.

Individualism is considered much more radical in places like China. It is not embraced, and those who are unconventional and break the mold are thought to be aggressive. Due to the fact that harmony is of the utmost importance to collectivist cultures, anyone considered disharmonious would lose face under this set of cultural values.

Face: West

Western cultural values lie in individualism and independence. They’re also geared toward innovation and so embrace change more readily over tradition.

And in the West, you must earn your face. It isn’t given to you. Even if you’re born into a wealthy family or a family of status, more often than not, you must prove yourself to establish a face.

To make your face, you must make yourself. And to do so in an individualist culture, you must stand out from the crowd. You can do this through professional/personal success or achievement, status, wealth, etc. And once you obtain a certain level of recognition, whether in your town or nationwide, whether in your company or your industry, you must reassert your voice regularly to maintain face.

What can make a Western person of stature lose face?

Disgrace can. Disgrace paramount to much of what is going on in America right now, with sexual assault and harassment scandals knocking down titans of entertainment, politics, and industry. This is just one of the things that can make a Westerner lose face.

Can Face Be Restored?

Face can be restored only through drastic measures in collectivist cultures. In the East, once one’s reputation has been damaged, it’s nearly impossible to recover. As put by sociologist Marcel Mauss, in such cultures, “to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit.” It’s better to avoid such face-destroying conflict, altogether.

In Western cultures, if face is lost, it can be more readily restored. In fact, many cheer comebacks, and the restoration of a good reputation might even be considered inspirational by some.

Whether face is restored or not, the loss of it cuts deep in any culture.

Next week, we’ll continue contrasting Eastern and the Western values by discussing the differences in social power structures and business culture. Stay tuned.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.