Posted in cross-cultural, Culture

Onions, backpacks and glass domes

Red_onions_(cross-sections)What do an onion, a backpack and glass domes have in common?  And a kaleidoscope?  A shadow?

They are all metaphors of cultures, believe it or not!  In a course on Cross-Cultural Communication I am taking, this week we were asked to comment on different metaphors of cultures, as well as come up with some of our own.

A metaphor I have often used in talking about culture is that of an onion.

There are several reasons for that.   One of them being that as we engage with cultures, as we peel away layer after layer, there are bound to be tears. Unless we study culture in a purely academic context, being confronted with another culture (and in the process, our own), is guaranteed to lead to a few emotions!

More importantly, though, I like the metaphor of an onion precisely because it expresses something of the complexity of culture. Similar to the iceberg metaphor, initially we see only the outer layer, the behaviour. But it is so important not to get stuck there, but to dig deeper, to peel away layer after layer. Starting to understand attitudes, values, world view – those things that are below the surface – takes time and hard work (and probably a few tears!) but boy is it crucial if we’re ever going to make sense of a culture and truly engage with it.

Looking through what other people came up with, a couple of them caught my eye. A kaleidoscope – fluid, always changing. And together creating beautiful patterns. And a shadow. Not always visible but always with us. We can’t hide it or escape from it.

As I was reflecting on some of the metaphors mentioned, it struck me that (probably inevitably) each of them communicates some aspects of culture better than others. For example, the metaphors of “islands in the ocean” and “glass domes” are strong at showing the distinctiveness of cultures but weaker at showing interconnectedness. On the other hand, the “backpack” metaphor, while showing that it is entirely possible to surmount cultural barriers, seems to ignore the fact that cultural convictions run deep and that moving from one framework to another is not as easy as putting on a different backpack. Both the “iceberg” metaphor and my own “onion” one look at culture a bit more in isolation, i.e. not so much at how one culture relates to another.

Not easy to pin down, this culture thing!

This is the course I am taking: https://www.coursera.org/course/russians

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