Connect Across Cultures Blog

Is The Onion Better Than The Iceberg?

The onion model has been used to describe and understand various cultural groups, apart from organisation, usually cited with Iceberg Model.

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

Is The Onion Better Than The Iceberg?

One afternoon, upon arriving at the Changi Airport in Singapore, I hurried to the closest fast food joint with my luggage. Starved, I quickly satisfied my grumbling stomach before heading home. Two hours later, I was horrified. A bag was missing. In a panicked state, I called the "lost and found" helpline. My luggage was not turned in.

Two hours later, I arrived at the fast-food joint, hoping against hope that my bag might still be there.

Lo' and behold, there it was. Settled on the chair. Untouched and undisturbed, as if taking charge and guarding the table.

This is the uniqueness of Singapore culture. It is a norm to leave an item on the table to "reserve" it while people buy or collect their food. These items are typically a packet of tissue, a business card, or anything not valuable, like a wallet or a phone.

To an outsider, a pack of tissue on a table may not mean much. When I first encountered this, I thought, "Singaporeans are so kind. They leave behind extra tissue for the next person." An angry local might assume or misunderstand that a stranger "stole" their reserved table.

Indeed, to discover, learn and understand a new culture requires tremendous effort, trial and error. With the help of models, the learning process might be more manageable. And so, in this article, we introduce to you the Cultural Onion.

What is the Cultural Onion Model?

The onion, a juicy and bulbous vegetable. The eyes tear when cut, and the nose retracts in its pungent aroma. When cooked, the onion is ever-present in our daily meals. Like the onion, when one tries to discover, learn and understand another culture, it can be an emotional (or tearful) and onerous (or odorous) process. When you know the onion well, accept and embrace it, it becomes pervasive in your life.

Edgar Schein, a former Psychology Professor, initially developed the Cultural Onion Model to explain organisational culture. Yet, the model has been extensively used to describe and understand various cultural groups, apart from organisation. Also, it is usually cited along with the Iceberg Model.

The onions start from a seed in the soil. It draws nutrients from the environment (or soil) throughout its life and grows its many layers. It usually takes 12 to 18 weeks to grow into a full-sized onion.

Yet, the onion cannot grow into its full size overnight. Likewise, a group or organisation does not adopt a new culture overnight. People learn from past experiences and adopt new practices in their everyday life. And so, culture forms as people go through changes, respond to events, adapt to environmental changes and evolve through lessons learned. This happens over a long time.

How does the Onion Model work?

The onion model contains three layers wrapped around each other. The outermost layer refers to artefacts and symbols. The layer beneath that is linked to espoused values or cultural norms. The innermost layer represents deeply held assumptions.

The Outer Layer: Artefacts and Symbols

The outermost layer represents artefacts and symbols. Artefacts and symbols refer to the sights, sounds, smells, colours, dressing, mannerisms and many others. In other words, everything that can be observed and sensed.

Sensory stimulation, when entering a new culture, can be overwhelming for an outsider. According to Schein1,

The most important point to be made about this level of culture is that it is both easy to observe and very difficult to decipher.

Overwhelming as it might be, the newcomer will appreciate this newness by pausing a moment and taking a step back. Before jumping to any conclusions or making any judgments, the first question to ask yourself is, What do I see?.

Take the "reserving" table culture in Singapore, for example. It is easy to jump to a conclusion. The conclusion can be that locals are kind for passing forward spare tissue packets. Or inconsiderate for not clearing their trash or many other conclusions.

Pause. Take a moment. Hold your judgement. Answer the question. The answer might be, "I see a (un)used pack of tissue on the table."

The Middle Layers: Espoused values, norms and beliefs

The wonderful middle layers of the onion model are the espoused values, norms and beliefs of a culture. These layers capture the unwritten and unspoken standards of acceptable behaviour.

The middle layer is not as visible as the outer layer of the artefacts and symbols layer. Instead, we need to peel back the layers, one by one, to learn about the underlying values, norms and beliefs. One question one can ask to peel back the layer is, What is acceptable behaviour?

With this question, you can reflect and brainstorm many different answers, which may give clues for the observed behaviour. Using the tissue-on-table example, the acceptable behaviour can be leaving an item of no value to reserve a table. Or leaving tissue as a courtesy to the next patron of the table. Or leaving behind a tissue is acceptable because it's the job of the waiters to clear them. It can be anything!

Keep your investigative hat on. Verify the list of possible answers with more observations and through conversations with locals. This exercise keeps your mind open to undiscovered possibilities. Most importantly, it prevents you from being stuck with one, and often, biased answer.

The Core: Basic Underlying Assumptions

The innermost layer, or the core, is the basic underlying assumption. Schein calls this the ultimate source of values and actions. As an outsider, this layer is the hardest to understand. This is because the group members themselves are unaware and often unable to explain these assumptions.

The layer of basic underlying assumptions is unconscious to the people who carry out these cultural practices. These beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings are often taken for granted. As an outsider, the question that can help unravel the core is, Why is this behaviour desirable?

Like the middle layer, you need to contemplate and brainstorm as many answers as possible. With the same example, the underlying assumption could be "I have the right to use the table because I came first". Or "Everyone needs a little help. A small gesture can cheer another." Or "If I don't leave anything, the waiters will be without a job." Through observations and conversations, answers will slowly uncover the basic underlying assumption.

Is the Onion better than the Iceberg?

When you learn, describe and understand a culture, the iceberg is typically competing with the Cultural Onion. It is like two seasoned boxers facing each other heads. One on each corner of the ring, while their fans cheer from the side. Both are strong contenders, and both have strong supporters. Each model is good at certain things, but not for others.

The Iceberg Model is an excellent reminder that there is more to culture than meets the eye. When faced with an unexplainable situation, the iceberg will say, "Wait, what is going on underneath? Can I see it?"

The iceberg has the tendency to assume that everything unknown about culture is mysterious or too deep to understand. The only way to know is to be a skilled scuba diver, diving deep into cold waters to see the depths of the cultural iceberg.

When culture is seen as too deep or too mysterious, people might become complacent. "It's too hard. I'll be myself, and it'll be fine."

People might make excuses. "Well, I'm not from here. I will never know." Or people might give up, "There's no point in learning this."

When the values and beliefs are seen as deep and mysterious, people accept behaviours as it is and not venture further to discover and learn about them.

On the other side of the ring, we have the Onion Model with its three layers. The three layers come with three questions that can help us to investigate a specific cultural instance. Rather than treating the depths of culture as dark and mysterious, the onion digs in, layer by layer, to reveal several possible meanings behind an observable behaviour.

Yet, the onion works best when investigating specific observable instances. It lacks in defining the generalities of a culture. How can we know whether this one specific instance means the same thing at another time and place? When we see a lanyard on a table in the city centre, does it mean the same meaning as the packet of tissue?

Also, in answering the three questions, we may come up with many answers. But, these answers are difficult to verify. Ask different people, and you may get different interpretations.

Where does this leave us?

Both the Onion and the Iceberg are easy to use. Both models are beneficial for learning. Both models can be included in self-reflection, group discussions, lectures and training programs. Both models have their weaknesses in understanding culture.

No matter which you choose, be clear of your objectives or goals for using the model. Between the two seasoned boxers, who will you support?


Schein, Edgar. 2009. The Corporate Culture Survival Guide. Jossey- Bass