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:

Posted in cross-cultural, Culture, Uncategorized

What we see

“I wonder what different people see as they watch this?” That was the question in my mind as this Guiness advert was making the rounds on Facebook on St Patrick’s Day. Do we all see the same thing?

There is the obvious story.  Rather silly, but endearing and fun.  A dog herding a bunch of guys into a pub for a Guiness.

What about all the sub-plots, though?  How many outside the UK will have heard of “One Man and His Dog“? Already the plot is slightly less random.

And the Indian restaurant.  Not just any restaurant, but an Indian one.  Couldn’t really be anything else.  “Going for a curry“.  So much part of British life.  It implies a night out with friends.  Not really significant in the advert but still there.  But lost to many who lack the background.

Silly, I know.  What does it matter whether or not we get these things.  But.

How often does that happen in the stories we tell each other?  Stories about ourselves?  Phrases we use, little references – all are significant.  But the other likely will miss those.  And we feel misunderstood, not really known.

Even when we share a lot of the same frame of reference that happens.  How much more between different cultures!  It is so easy to think we understand and then to pass judgement.  Yet we only hear what’s on the surface and so easily miss what’s behind, the real meaning.

What we see, what we hear, can be so wrong, so far from what is meant.

Oh for the wisdom to hold my tongue, to listen, to seek understanding!

Posted in Culture

Colours and Cultural Differences

This sort of thing is so fascinating to me!  So many things are second nature, we “know” them without remembering ever having learned them.  Which works great, until we encounter someone for whom our “second nature knowledge” makes no sense at all.  Things can get very confusing and messy when we are trying to communicate one thing, but because of maybe symbols we use, what’s understood is totally different.  Here’s a great example of that:


Reposted from:

Have you ever considered that something as simple and natural as colours can be perceived differently across cultural lines? Isabelle Fontaine looks at some cultural differences.

We are surrounded by many colours – often, we are not aware of certain values that we associate with them. If we compare the meaning of a colour in our culture to its meaning somewhere else, we can find some surprising facts. For marketing, this means that depending on your target market, the colours should be carefully chosen and checked, but unfortunately, things have gone wrong quite a few times in the past, when a product has been introduced to a new market – wrong colour choices can have catastrophic consequences…  You would not want to advertise a fresh, new product with a colour that symbolises mourning in that specific culture, would you? Here are some examples of colours and their meanings in different cultures.

The colour of the sky and the ocean, blue is generally seen as being soothing. In Christianity, it is connected to Christ.  It symbolises immortality in China, whereas it is the colour of mourning in Iran.

In Europe, green is the traditional colour of nature, spring and new life. Also in politics, environmental protection is often associated with the green party. In Ireland, it is the colour of Catholics. In the US, however, it is linked to money (with “greenback” being a colloquial expression for a dollar bill), whereas in the Islamic World, it symbolises hope, since the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad was green.

Generally related to autumn and harvest in Europe and, more specifically, to Halloween in the US, this colour is often associated with Protestants in Ireland, and in international sports events, it often represents the Netherlands because of their royal family (House of Orange).

In Europe, the colour red is used for signs to draw attention to something, e.g. danger (speed limits or stop signs) and it is also well-known to every shopping lover – in sale signs. In China, however, red is the lucky colour which symbolises joy and happiness as well as vitality.

In Europe, white is the traditional colour of bridal dresses, whereas in Japan and China it is the colour of grief.

In Europe, this colour is used for both hazards and happiness, but in Egypt it is connected to mourning. Whereas it symbolises courage in Japan, it can be connected to cowardice in Europe and the US.