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Defining Culture

Intercultural communication – what is it, and why does it matter? In this article, we will briefly look at theories of culture and provide a short introduction to cross-cultural communication for expats, with plenty of practical advice.
A country's culture has layers and a hidden core - just like an onion.

Theories of Culture: Iceberg or Onion?

A helpful alternative to the “iceberg model” of culture is to imagine another culture as an onion. Culture is not something you can measure. It is mostly invisible, but these invisible values guide behavior and social interactions. However, like an onion, you can “peel” culture and strip down its layers.

The outermost layer of the “onion”, i.e. of a different culture, is what you can see, hear, and touch: artifacts, products, and rituals. For example, a Japanese Shinto shrine is an artifact from that culture; a bento box full of sushi is a typical product, and the tea ceremony is a traditional Japanese ritual.

The next layer of a culture consists of its systems and institutions. One could describe the US government, with its three branches and its principle of checks and balances, as an institution that’s clearly important to lots of American citizens.

Systems and institutions, in turn, are based on certain beliefs, norms, and attitudes. To stay with our previous example, the US government: The way it is organized has its roots in specific beliefs. For instance, democracy is a good thing, and every citizen should have a say in government. The government, however, shouldn’t have too much power and interfere too much in the life of citizens.

These beliefs then stem from the core of the “onion”, the most basic values of any culture. In the US example, one of these values would be the freedom of the individual – something that might be of less relevance in the unspoken core values of other cultures.

Five Dimensions of Cultural Core Values

It’s that core that is both the hardest to get at and the most influential element of all. In the field of intercultural communication, it has become usual to profile the core values of a culture according to several dimensions:

Identity or individualism vs. collectivism: What matters more to a person from that culture – their own personal wants and needs or the social harmony of the group they belong to? The United States and Japan could be seen as examples of an individualist and a collectivist society, respectively.

Hierarchy or power distances: Do people treat each other in a relatively egalitarian manner, or are status and seniority very important? The Scandinavian countries are frequently cited as egalitarian cultures, whereas Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of hierarchies.

Truth: This has nothing to do with truth in the philosophical sense. The dimension is also called uncertainty avoidance vs. uncertainty tolerance. 

People from the first kind of culture simply don’t like uncertainties. They want to know what exactly is appropriate and right. Regulations and structures are essential, while ambiguity, risks, and differences may upset them. Germany is frequently described as a classic case of an uncertainty-avoidance culture. People from uncertainty-tolerance cultures tend to fare better with spontaneity, flexibility, and relativity.

Gender or masculinity vs. femininity: The original researchers found that some cultures appreciated values they (the researchers) associated with men, while other cultures valued things that the researchers commonly ascribed to women. 

Achievement-oriented vs. care-oriented would be a better way of describing this dimension. An achievement-oriented (or “masculine”) culture emphasizes competition and success. Care-oriented (or “feminine”) societies, on the other hand, prefer equality and solidarity.

Virtue: Again, we aren’t talking about virtue in an ethical sense. It’s more about which basic behavior a certain culture likes better: that which brings long-term benefits or what benefits you immediately. 

The virtue dimension opposes “long-term oriented” to “short-term oriented” cultures. A long-term oriented culture holds hard work, fulfilling your goals, and never giving up in high esteem. Short-term oriented cultures rather value a person’s dignity in a specific context, social demands, and immediate reciprocity.

Some researchers occasionally add a sixth dimension to this model, i.e. universalism vs. particularism. However, the five-dimension model is the most common one.