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The Substance of Culture: Three Levels of Culture


Lead-in reflection

Take a couple of minutes to answer the questions.

Which of these represent elements of culture? Why? / Why not? Is there anything missing from the list?

  • A country’s literature
  • A country’s history
  • Greetings and forms of address
  • Eating habits
  • National cuisine
  • Everyday objects
  • Religious rituals
  • Relationships
  • Acceptable behaviour
  • Folklore
  • A country’s education system


In fact, all of these represent elements of culture.

You may compare your ideas to those expressed by some other people:


A country’s literature can be seen as a means of learning about a country’s culture but it is also true that certain literary traditions and works cannot be fully enjoyed or their messages decoded if you are not acquainted with the particular culture where this literature has been created. For example, you have to be familiar with.


More elements can be added - such as typical dress (think of the Indian suree or the Korean Hanbok, which are both traditional women’s dress). A country’s legal system is also culturally bound, for instance is killing a dog incriminated or not. Favourite pastimes, national sports, gender roles, etc. – all these have their place in a group’s culture.

You may also wish to go back to the introductory video “What is culture”




A popular metaphor about culture likens it to an iceberg with a small visible and a much larger invisible part. Some theorists (E. T. Hall – 1976, French, W., & Bell, C. – 1995, Katan - 2014) liken culture to an iceberg – there are elements which we can see clearly but many more are “below the waterline” and we can only guess or judge about them on the basis of what we see above the water surface. The elements which inhabit the space close to the iceberg base are considered most difficult to change.

E. T. Hall goes further by dividing the “iceberg” in three and calls it the Triad of Culture (1959, pp. 83 -119).

Thus the level above the waterline is called technical culture. These elements of a culture are explicit. They are usually associated with codified rules and laws. They can be discussed and explained. They are the easiest to change due to influences from the outside. However, violating these rules can lead to strong emotional reactions.

The second level (the first one below the water line) is called formal culture. It represents the accepted way to do things and is not objective. Traditions, for example, inhabit this level. It is taught and learned. In general, people are not aware of the conventions surrounding the routines of life. However, when the convention is violated, this arouses deep emotions. Formal culture is the most difficult to change but it does evolve slowly over time.

The third level (the second one below the water line) is called informal culture. There are no rules at this level and it is acquired informally. As Hall puts it, there is little or no affect attached to informal behaviour as long as things are going along nicely according to the unwritten or unstated rules. However, when this tacit etiquette is breached, a person responds emotionally.

Hall’s triad of culture refers to cultures in broad terms but it has an analogue in the study of organizational culture. Edgar Schein, for example, proposes a similar three-level model of organizational culture which includes (top to bottom) artifacts, values and basic assumptions.

Hand-on Task and Reflection


1. Draw an iceberg. Divide it in three to represent the technical, the formal and the informal level of culture. Place the following on one of the levels.

architecture • art • communication • customs • dress • environment • food and drink • individualism • language • music • power • rituals • space • styles of dress • thinking • time • visible behaviour





2 Take some time to reflect on the questions below.

  • What do you consider key elements of your home culture? Are these related to the technical, the formal or the informal level? Which of them would be difficult to explain to a person from another culture?
  • What elements of the culture of your host country have made the biggest impression on you? Are these related to the technical, the formal or the informal level? Which of them do you find most difficult to understand?

3 Take some time to reflect on the culture of the organization you come from.

  • Make a list of the artifacts, values and basic assumptions which are typical of it.
  • Are these similar or different to the artifacts, values and basic assumptions typical of organization you are (or aspire to be) part of?


To put it in the words some modern theorists, culture is a complex set of shared beliefs, values and ideas that help a group "understand" the life around and tells them how to live. Some of the elements of this system of beliefs can be obvious, others are hidden. Cultures often contain conflicting or mutually exclusive messages that require constant interpretation. It is also possible for the interpretations of the individual members of a group to be radically different from one another. (Holiday, Hyde and Kulman, 2004: 60).


Speaking the language, which is on the borderline between the visible and invisible aspects of a culture, is often not enough. There is a great risk to fail to acquire the values and assumptions behind a language.


When I think of "culture," the first thing that comes to my mind is “deeply rooted values” which shape my own and other people’s behaviour. This behaviour is the norm for a given society. For example, in our culture, it is considered cruel to kill a vertebrate animal and there may be certain legal consequences if you have harmed, let’s say, a dog but not too severe. However, in India, it would be a major offence if you harm a cow which is sacred in Indian culture.


My own personality has been formed under the influence of an infinite number of factors since an early age. Among them are my family, my teachers at school, the books I have read but also the media – newspapers, TV and now social networks.


I think culture serves as a marker for belonging to a particular nationality, ethnicity, religion, race or other groups in which individuals share common values, norms of behavior, history, language, and many other specific and unique qualities. To interact successfully, the different groups need to get to know and understand these specifics, and this is possible through the exchange of knowledge, crossing the threshold of the familiar culture and entering into the new one. And to be patient, because it takes time.