By Dr. Thomas J. Bussen
“There are truths on this side of the Pyrenees which are falsehoods on the other.”
– Philosopher Michel de Montaigne, 16th centuryi
This article summarizes the inner and outer layers of culture. It emphasizes—through a lighthearted reference to Shrek—that through attention to the visible outer layers of a culture, one may learn invaluable lessons about the deeply held attitudes and beliefs of a society. Empirically grounded, this article nonetheless presents concepts of culture—often an ambiguously defined term—in concise, clear, and friendly terms, with easy actions items for readers.
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.”ii
As articulated famously by the lovable ogre Shrek, ogres have layers, onions have layers, and, we would argue, so too does culture.iii 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,” usually means nothing more than try the wine or eat the gelato.
But at the inner levels of this onion, we have a more immovable culture, characterized by deeply held attitudes, beliefs, norms, and morals. Geert Hofstede refers to this inner level as a place of “mental programming,” a 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, who may each view their own culturally infused attitudes and beliefs as universal truth.
The inner levels and outer levels are, however, linked rather than distinct. Often, the outer layers signal changes that 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. 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 more liberal 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 hair cut signals deeper changes—to gender norms, to sexual mores. And what causes the outcry toward women who don’t take their husband’s surname? 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) that changes to outer cultural values may signal changes to inner ones. Many French people resisted Disney’s entry into France, not so upset about the dancing Disney characters, but rather fearing a subtle weakening of French culture before the American cultural behemoth.
Meanwhile, The Economist reports that China’s government is seeking to become a “socialist culture superpower”iv 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, deemphasizing pop stars, and decrying the “feminine” appearance of local celebrities, while airing classical poetry quiz shows and holding children’s competitions in writing complex Chinese characters.v
These countries understand that the outer, visible layers of a culture are not gratuitous. Instead, they can often provide us with insight into a people’s very attitudes and beliefs. To begin to understand a culture at a deeper level than the average tourist or businessperson, observe closely those visible outer layers. In those layers, lies a multitude.
Dr. Thomas J. Bussen
Dr. Thomas J. Bussen is the author of several cross-cultural books, including Shaping the Global Leader (2019) and The Rising Tide: A Neo-Collectivist Critique of American Individuality (expected, 2022). His author’s website, with additional cross-cultural writings, is available here. Bussen, with a Doctorate of Busines Administration, JD, and MBA, is a professor of international business at the African Leadership University in Rwanda and a cross-cultural management coach.