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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsAs we've mentioned earlier, metaphors can sometimes be a helpful tool to help us think about aspects of culture. Today we'd like to introduce culture as an onion. In fact, identity is like an onion. Oftentimes, when we see an onion, we're not sure of what's inside. We see the brown outside or the red outside. But we might not know, peeling it off layer by layer, it's white, maybe even green. Culture is similar. When we see other people, we might judge them by the outside cover. But we need to peel, layer by layer, by asking questions, by getting to know them.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 secondsIn social penetration theory, Altman and Taylor talked about how our questions in our interaction take us first deeper, as we cut into the onion, and also wider over time. The first layer is often the public layer, what we see from the outside. You might see a ring and know that I'm married. You might see my skin colour and guess that I am from a European or a Western country or some sort. But it takes questions to ask specifically, --identity questions, cultural questions-- to go layer by layer. From the public, we go to more private topics.

Skip to 1 minute and 20 secondsAnd then, as relationships really became close, we began to explore the psychological, in deep friendships or in a couple building a relationship toward becoming husband and wife. But at the depth of culture are some questions we may not be able to answer. We often don't know the deep aspects of us. And it takes certain situations to bring out that I have the strength to become a hero. Or I saw a situation, and I was suddenly afraid. So think of culture as an onion. Think of identity as the need to go step by step, layer by layer in exploring. Some of that exploration might even make us cry sometimes, like onions do if they're very strong.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 secondsBut often we'll find there's a rich level of layer-by-layer discovery. We hope that metaphor motivates you as you explore each other's identity.

Representing identity as an onion

Identities can be discovered layer by layer either through self-reflection or interpersonal interaction. Some identities are easily noticeable, but it usually takes interaction to bring out or penetrate deeper layers of identities.

Geert Hofstede and other interculturalists have proposed the metaphor of an ‘onion’ to describe cultural phenomenon. No matter what color an onion is on the outside, we are not sure what is inside. Only by peeling off layer by layer can we discover what is at the core. Cultural identity is similar. When we see other people, we may quickly judge them by external factors, but only if we take the time to relate, talk or share deeper experiences do we get to know them.

Altman and Taylor proposed “Social Penetration Theory” to account for how we first form impressions of people at a public level (the visible or early surface questions), then move to private (relationship building, self-disclosure interaction) and eventually to deeper psychological areas in exploring their personhood. This process allows for the building of deepening interpersonal understanding and trust.

Extending beyond their model, we suggest that even in the depths of our cultural identities or personhood (psyche), there are likely some unanswerable questions. Certain situations, such as emergencies or other crises, may bring out these emotive, character-oriented, moral, or other levels of our being.

What kind of communication has taken you to deeper levels of understanding in getting to know a friend? How does the onion metaphor help you think through challenges you may face when you talk with people who have different cultural backgrounds?

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This video is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)