Understanding different cultures… in an onion.

Cultural Onion by Geert Hendrik. Image by Charlene Fan.

I am working at the moment with the 3rd Year International Class at the Ecole de Design Nantes Atlantique and have been looking for exercises to work with around the subject of design and hygiene outside in the city.

I had heard about this exercise before, developed by Geert Hendrik Hofstede, but had never studied it or tried it out in class. Have you? What were your experiences?


Having moved to France back in 2004 from the UK I can say that this onion makes a lot of sense to me.

“Geert Hofstede and other interculturalists have proposed the metaphor of an ‘onion’ to describe cultural phenomenon. No matter what colour an onion is on the outside, we are not sure what is inside.” Intercultural Communication Course, Future Learn

This comes through experience. Our first impressions of another type of “people” is the outward appearance, symbols, rituals, ways of speaking and doing. We then may meet some people ‘heroes’ who can make our life easier, explain things to us more clearly, and we can befriend them and have a natural rapport with them, in which case we feel more confident and confirmed in this new culture. When we form relationships such as this

The first layer around the core is described as rituals. Rituals are collective activities. They are not actually needed to achieve a goal, but are considered absolutely essential and necessary by the members of a culture. A ritual can be the way of personal hygiene (most Asians shower in the evening, Europeans in the morning). German people like to shake hands often, Malay tenderly touch the fingertips and then point it to the heart. Those rituals are changing slowly.  Because of that, they are performed for their own sake. Ways of greeting and paying respect to others, social and religious ceremonies are examples the way you serve tea, salutations at the beginning and end of a letter etc.

The second layer around the core are the “heroes“. A hero can be a fictive person, alive or dead, real or imaginary, who possess characteristics which are highly prized in a culture, and who thus serve as models for behaviour and have an influence on the culture. In Nantes where I live we have a hero called Jules Vernes, whose most famous book was 20,000 leagues under the sea. You may know him, he wrote many novels with fantastic themes. Nantes has manifested this hero in many of its cultural attractions and have chosen to make his influence a strong identity of our city. Watch this video to understand how. are persons, alive or dead, real or imaginary, who possess characteristics which are highly prized in a culture, and who thus serve as models for behavior.

The third layer is about symbols. This can represent cultural symbols such as words in a language, pictures, objects, cultural artefacts or monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris) or symbols such as flags, architecture or traditional clothing, hairstyles or food.  French gastronomy really is a key symbol of the French culture and now protected by UNESCO as a “world intangible heritage”.  Nowadays most symbols appear as brands like BMW, Apple or Louis Vuitton. These symbols are different – they usually move according to the momentary fashion but some are embedded in the culture such as Apple for California, Coca Cola for the USA, the Mini for the UK and Chanel for France.

The core stands for the values of a certain culture, The core of a culture is formed by values. Values are ideas that tell what in life is considered important, and they are among the first things children learn. Because they are learned so early in our lives, we are often unaware of our values. Describing or discussing them can be difficult, and outsiders cannot directly see them. They can only watch the symbols, heroes and rituals of a culture and try to guess what the values – the inner core – are. When I moved to France, I really had to try and understand these. These are the basis of a culture the most important things embedded in a culture. These values are laid in the early childhood. They mostly appear subconsciously. The outer layers appear more and more consciously.

This video from future learn explains this cultural onion in a more user-friendly way.

Tools like this are primordial when working or developing projects for different cultures. Please comment with your experiences of using this tool, or other tools which you have found useful in different cultural contexts.





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