Understanding culture


30 minutes


  • Coconut diagram (attached)
  • Post it notes
  • Textas


  • Introduction – In this session we are going to explore the concept of culture particularly in the work place.
  • Discussion – How would you define what culture is? Why do you think it is important to look at culture before working in an international context?
  • Ask participants to write down on post it notes (one on each note) what they see as the key elements relating to culture. Participants should think as broadly or specifically as they like. Start with the obvious elements but try to think also about some of the deeper elements of culture. (Put the notes aside for later use)
  • Introduce the cultural coconut diagram (based on the cultural iceberg which students may be familiar with). Does anyone have an idea of what the coconut floating in the water represents?


  • Imagine that culture is a coconut bobbing in water.

Above water – The small bit of green skin you can see bobbing above the water line represents the obvious behaviours and beliefs you notice when you first have an interaction with a different work culture. It’s the ‘DO’ elements of culture.

Below water – If you look under the water you will find a much larger portion of the coconut submerged. This represents the values and knowledge that underpin the behaviours and beliefs we can see from the surface. This is the ‘Think’ element of culture.

Water – The water itself represents the worldviews that are within and around us that inform the way we perceive and understand the world around us. This is the ‘See’ element of culture.

  • Going back to your post it notes, where do you think the cultural elements you have identified fit in the diagram? Ask participants to stick post it notes on the diagram.
  • What’s missing from the diagram? Add in any additional points.
  • Group discussion – below are some guiding questions
    • What layer in this diagram do you think is most important to develop cross-cultural understanding?
    • Why do you think it will be important to develop a level of cross-cultural understanding when working internationally?
    • How would you like to be viewed or understood by others?