The Onion Model of Culture

Matthew MacLachlan

18 Mar 2010

There are many ways to visualise the concept of culture, but one of the most popular models is based on an onion.  The Onion Model of Culture shows how culture has a number of layers.  There are a number of interpretations of this model but the simplest one consists of four key layers.

The outer layers represent cultural artefacts or symbols such as flags, architecture or traditional clothing.  Heroes make up the next layer, such as Winston Churchill in the UK, and tend to represent many of the culture’s values and beliefs.

The next layer is composed of common rituals and traditions.  This could include how people greet each other, eat meals, get married or practise their religion.

In the centre of the onion are the underlying values and cultural assumptions which influence all of the other layers.  These beliefs, norms and attitudes are much harder to recognise without a deeper analysis and thorough understanding of each of these layers and how they interact.

Cross-cultural training can help anyone working across cultures see past the outer layers and understand the why, what and how behind each of them.  When doing business in Japan, for example, people will avoid making direct eye contact with anyone more senior than them.  Understanding that this is because of important Japanese values such as face and hierarchy is essential for anyone doing business with Japan.

Country-specific cross-cultural training programmes such as Communicaid’s Doing Business in Japan will increase understanding of the cultural values and how they influence the rituals, heroes and symbols in Japanese business culture. Understanding the cultural values and their impact will help you ensure that your international business ventures are a success.