As Edward B. Tylor wrote in 1871: “Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [humankind] as a member of society.”
Or, as another put it more simply, “Culture is the way we do things here.”
SHREK ON ONIONS
As articulated famously by the lovable ogre Shrek, ogres have layers, onions have layers, and, one would argue, so too does culture. The outer layers tend to be observable objects such as the food, dress and music of a society. The typical tourist to Paris or Rome rarely ventures deeper than this outer layer. The expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” typically means nothing more than “try the wine” or “eat the gelato.”
There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees which are falsehoods on the other.
— Philosopher Michel de Montaigne, 16th century
But at the inner levels of this onion we have a more immovable culture characterized by deeply held attitudes, beliefs, norms and morals. Hofstede refers to this inner level as a place of “mental programming,” a turn of phrase that signals the deeply embedded nature of culturally infused attitudes and beliefs.
Consequently, the inner layer is not simply the root of culture, it is the basis of misunderstanding and conflict between peoples that each may view their own culturally infused attitudes and beliefs as the universal truth.
The inner levels and outer levels are, however, linked rather than distinct. Often, the outer layers signal changes which are happening or poised to happen at the inner levels. For instance, Russian men of the former Soviet Union began wearing Levi’s jeans – thereby changing the visible outer layer – to signal their solidarity with the liberal values of the western world, which represented the inner layer.
The inner layer is not simply the root of culture, it is the basis of misunderstanding and conflict between peoples that each may view their own culturally infused attitudes and beliefs as the universal truth.
Similarly, the inevitability of a northern European waiting patiently for the signal at an empty street crossing emphasizes a respect for rules and laws that exceeds much the rest of the Western world.
Sometimes, the outer layer anticipates changes to the inner layers, such as when women adopt a more liberal dress attire while gender equity remains merely aspirational. This gap, termed a “culture” lag, helps explain the antagonism that those resistant to societal change express towards outer level changes which may appear to the rest of us as little more than window-dressing.
Why get angry about the young men of yesteryear wearing their hair longer or with rather more extravagance than the ever-popular, buzz-cut style? Perhaps that haircut signals deeper changes, to gender norms, to sexual mores. Or the outcry toward women not taking the name of their husbands? Perhaps weaker family bonds are on the horizon, the unstated subtext goes.
While this may seem much ado about nothing, governments and patriotic citizens from China to Iran and France recognize (and fear) this influence of outer on inner cultural values. Many French resisted Disney’s entry into the country, not so upset about the dancing Disney characters but rather fearing a subtle weakening of French culture before the U.S. cultural behemoth.
Perhaps that haircut signals deeper changes, to gender norms, to sexual mores.
Meanwhile, “The Economist” relates that China’s government is seeking to become a “socialist culture superpower” by explicitly using the outer layers of the onion to impact core, inner values. It is, for instance, putting limits on the number of foreign children’s books allowed into the country, while deemphasizing pop stars and decrying the “feminine” appearance of local celebrity, all in lieu of classical poetry quiz shows and children’s competitions in writing complex Chinese characters.
LAYERS OFFER INSIGHTS INTO CULTURE
These countries understand: the outer, visible layers of a culture are not gratuitous. They are instead oftentimes an insight into a people’s very attitudes and beliefs.
To begin understanding a culture at a deeper level than the average tourist or businessperson, therefore, observe closely those visible, outer layers. In those layers lies a multitude.