What are some examples of cultural symbols

Cultivated onion

Movie tip

The Cultivated onion is a metaphor or a model for the graphic representation of culture. The model was developed by the cultural scientist Geert Hofstede. First of all: An interactive learning module on cultivated onions can be found here.


Hofstede describes culture as an onion that consists of different layers. The outer layer corresponds to what people can see in terms of cultural particularities. This layer means the so-called symbols. Symbols are words, gestures, images or objects that have a certain meaning that is only recognized as such by those people who belong to the same culture. The hairstyle, clothes or flags can be mentioned as simple examples of symbols. In addition, other markers can appear that are also 'visible'. These include language, gestures and facial expressions. Symbols are not fixed, but are subject to change over time. Symbols of special cultural groups influence each other.


The next layer in the onion model according to Hofstede are heroes: “Heroes are people, dead or alive, real or fictional, who have qualities that are highly regarded in a culture; they therefore serve as behavioral models. ”(cf. Hofstede 2001, 8) Examples of heroes from American culture can be comic characters or television personalities such as Batman, Rocky or Rambo in addition to former President John F. Kennedy.


The third and penultimate layer in the onion model is called rituals. Hofstede describes rituals as “collective activities that are actually superfluous in order to achieve the desired goals, but are considered socially necessary within a culture” (cf. Hofstede 2001, 8). Examples of rituals are gestures of greeting or appreciation towards another person, as well as social and religious customs. In addition to the verbal forms of greeting such as Hello, Hello or Hello in the German language also the physical greetings in the form of shaking hands.


The first three layers are visible to an observer, although their significance for the culture cannot be inferred by the observer without further ado. These three layers can be summarized under the term 'practices'. Practices can easily be imitated by outsiders, but the meaning behind the actions is usually not recognized.


Book tip

The core of the Cultivated onion form the values ​​that Hofstede describes as “general tendencies to prefer certain circumstances” (cf. Hofstede 2001, 9). The values ​​are also defined as feelings with a strong positive or negative orientation. Values ​​play a special role in bringing up children because they are among the first things the child learns in life. Most people are unaware of their values ​​as they are learned early in life and subconsciously. They are also used daily, which also contributes to their subconscious use.


Test your knowledge Cultivated onion - here you can find the fill in the blank.




Hofstede, Geert / Hofstede, Gert Jan / Mayer, Petra / Sondermann, Martina / Lee, Anthony (2011): Global thinking, local action. Intercultural cooperation and global management. 5th edition Munich: Beck.

Further learning material: Communicate and act competently across cultures