Cultures are often understood as a complex collection of various elements such as food, language, behavior, art and entertainment, values, beliefs, and worldview. These components interweave to form what we recognize as “culture.” However, it is important to explore the connections between the diverse aspects of cultures. Are cultures simply haphazard assortments of all these elements? I don’t think so. In my perspective, culture can be likened to an onion with concentric layers akin to strata. Through observation and research, I have identified five distinct “layers” that contribute to the rich tapestry of culture.

Layer 1 – Signs & Symbols

Do you ever find yourself among people who speak a language that you don’t understand? Or, maybe the attire is not familiar to you? And the style of the buildings and decorations appear unusual? In these situations, you don’t have to be a genius to realize that you are in another culture!

The first layer of culture, Signs & Symbols, is what the experts call ‘material culture.’ This includes the things that are easily observed – the art, tools, architecture, symbols, and the language that is spoken.

When it comes to how people think, feel, behave and see the world, Signs and Symbols are the tip of the iceberg. They express the deeper values, beliefs and Worldview.

Questions to ask to detect Signs and Symbols:

  • What do people consider beautiful? What is the art like?
  • What is the food like?
  • Describe the language they speak and communicate in.
  • How are typical homes laid out? How are they furnished and decorated?
  • Describe the way people dress. How is their dress practical? In what ways does dress classify people in the society?
  • How is common space treated?
Layer 2 – Behaviors & Institutions

Shared activities, greetings, gestures, common occupations, ways of spending time and working together… these are all examples of the second layer of culture. This includes the easily noticeable behaviors, as well as the ‘Institutions,’ which are subsets of people in that society that connect for a common purpose like schools (for education) and hospitals (for health care).


Maybe you are a person who smiles to indicate that something is good. And maybe you nod your head up and down to say ‘yes’. When you hear a raised voice – you assume that it indicates that someone is angry or emotional.

Smiling, nodding your head, raising your voice are examples of cultural Behaviors. Here is the thing. They don’t always mean what you think. In Japan, a smile can indicate embarrassment. In Bulgaria and other regions when people nod their heads up and down, they mean ‘no’. And a raised voice in the Arab world can mean that someone is fully engaged in the topic. As it is with Signs and Symbols, Behaviors don’t always mean what one might think!


Families, schools, governments, religious associations, sporting clubs, knitting groups, etc, develop in every culture. They enable people to do things together that reflect their shared values. We call them ‘institutions.’ They do not look the same from one culture to another but are essential to maintain the way of life as people expect it.

The following questions help us understand Behaviors:

  • What do people do for leisure and recreation?
  • What occupations are common?
  • How do people greet each other? Do greetings differ according to setting, relationship, gender, etc?
  • What are major celebrations and holidays? How do people commemorate them?

The following questions will highlight the Institutions:

  • Describe the educational system. Who goes to school and what do they learn?
  • What are the major religions?
  • Describe the government.
  • What is the economy based on?
  • How are families structured? What gender roles exist? Who prepares meals, trains the kids, provides financially, etc.

The Behaviors and Institutions of a culture are influenced by its Values.

Layer 3 – Cultural Values

Underneath the Behavior & Institutions layer are the Cultural Values. Values are deeply held ideals, principles and feelings.

People have personal values, but we are looking for the shared values of a group. For example, it is fair to say that Americans value individual identity and direct communication while another culture might value group identity and indirect communication.

Values drive how decisions are made and how people interact. They shape Behavior & Institutions and give meaning to the Signs & Symbols of a culture.

Cultural Values are below the surface-largely invisible. Understanding them accurately requires observation as well as participation and interaction.

Questions for understanding Cultural Values:

  • Do people like to work independently, or together?
  • What makes a hero? Who are considered heroes?
  • Are status and honor achieved or ascribed?
  • What are the major areas of societal pain and suffering?
  • Who are recognized as leaders in the community? Why are they seen as leaders?
  • What traits do people value in others?
  • What are the popular proverbs?
  • Describe the people’s attitude concerning money and property. Does property have a symbolic or utilitarian value? Is it freely shared or not?
Common Cultural Values

There are dozens of ways to approach cultural values. The following is list of a few of the more basic cultural values.

Identity as an INDIVIDUAL Identity as member of a GROUP

A ‘me’ culture in which individual self-expression is the ultimate goal.

A ‘we’ culture in which group harmony and consensus are ultimate goals.

  • People are defined by what they do.  
  • Move straight to business; relating personally comes later.
  • People are defined based on who they are. 
  • It is important to get to know someone before doing business with them.
DIRECT Communication INDIRECT Communication
  • Openly confront issues and difficulties.
  • When communicating important information, talk directly to the person who needs to hear it.
  • ‘Yes’ means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ means ‘no’.
  • Difficult and contentious issues are discreetly avoided, as is conflict, if possible.
  • Use a messenger to communicate important information.
  • ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ may be said to be polite.
TIME Oriented EVENT Oriented
  • Plan activities.  
  • Schedules and routines should not be interrupted.
  • Live in the moment.
  • Resist a scheduled life.
Layer 4 – Belief Systems

Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Materialism, Modernism, New Age Consciousness, Post-Modernism, Spiritualism… are all examples of Belief Systems.

Belief Systems are convictions concerning truth that people live by. Often religion provides the answers here, but people who do not consider themselves to be religious also have a foundational set of beliefs that guides them through life. Belief Systems start with a basic Worldview and are further shaped by a variety of factors such as:

  1. Ethnicity
  2. Socio-economic status
  3. Geo-political context
  4. Religion
  5. Language

Normally one of the above five items will be dominant for a person’s identity. I’ll use myself as an example here. I am a white, European (ethnicity), middle class, (socio-economic status), American (geo-political context), Christian (religion), English-speaker (language). All of those factors contribute to my Belief System.

But, of all those factors, my religion is most important to me. In other words, I look to my faith above my citizenship, class, ethnicity, etc when considering how to navigate life. When conflict arises between being an American and being a Christian, I side with my faith. Another white, American, middle class, English speaking, Christian might be more inclined toward their socio-economic status or American values in the same situation.

The following questions reveal the Belief System of a group of people:

  • What are people’s aspirations in life? What are they striving to attain or experience?
  • How do people explain sickness, natural disasters or similar troubles?
  • To whom, what or where do people turn for help when they need it?
  • In what way are people religious?
  • What do people trust in?
  • Who or what in the universe has the power to alter or change the course of history?
Layer 5 – Worldview

The fifth and deepest layer of any culture is its ‘worldview’.  A worldview is a set of preconceptions and assumptions that explain what is real about the universe and our existence. One’s Worldview governs beliefs, values and behavior. It provides the perspective from which the world is seen and interpreted.

Worldview is real, but invisible. For the most part it is assumed. With the exception of philosophers, people rarely talk about it.

Admittedly, worldview is deeper and more philosophical than I like to get. However, even a basic awareness of worldview helps us to understand why cultures are the way they are. Its worth digging in.

James Sire asks the following questions to help us understand Worldview.

  • What is prime reality – the really real?
  • What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
  • What is a human being?
  • What happens to a person at death?
  • Why is it possible to know anything at all?
  • How do we know what is right and wrong?
  • What is the meaning of human history?

(The Universe Next Door, by James Sire, p 20)