The Culture Tree: Consider the Roots

Apr 8, 2020 | 4 comments

“I’ll never understand these people!”  

Yes, those words came out of my mouth. 

I was an American working at a Bible institute in Mexico. I had taught students in the US, and so when I had students from Mexico, I just repeated what had worked so well with the American students. But the Mexicans didn’t react the same way. They did not respond to lessons like my American students did, and they didn’t respond to daily campus life issues like my US students had. And so, I was sure that I would never understand them!

Maybe you are living a similar experience. Maybe the details are different—maybe you don’t use the words “I’ll never understand” and you might not be in a school. But you can have the same feelings in medicine or business or ministry or humanitarian relief.  The details don’t matter—everyone who lives a global life will have that moment where they think—or say—“I’ll never understand them!” You find yourself thinking, “They laugh when it is time to cry. They eat when I feel like sleeping. They choose leaders that I just don’t understand! They read the wrong books, and they write their thoughts down the wrong way. Why do they do all of this? I will NEVER understand!”

If you have ever felt like that, this space in Global Trellis is for you! Our goal here is to share experiences, insights and resources to help one group of people better understand other groups of people. We are going to look at culture, but not in the way that we usually think. Usually we think of culture as the visible parts of a culture-–what do the people eat? How do they dress? What are their houses like? What is their family structure? How do they choose leaders? What are their schools like?

Those visible answers are a great starting point, but they don’t help us to understand the people. Visible actions and reactions can tell us what the people do—but that description is not the same thing as understanding the values and truths and beliefs that shape and influence those visible actions. 

Of all the skill sets for the international worker, being able to observe and copy the actions of the hosts is one major and significant skill. It is vital that we learn to see the visible.

But it is just as important that we learn to see the invisible!

Think of a tree. The visible parts–-the parts that are above ground—seem to be the most important. But did you know that on average, 28% of a tree is below ground? It is invisible! Yet it is also massive in size, it holds the tree stable, and it provides nourishment and water for all that visible part of the tree. Those roots that hold and nourish also grow. As the top gets bigger and more complex, so do the roots. The picture we are creating is a growing culture held in place and nourished by a growing root system.

When I didn’t understand my Mexican neighbors, it was because I was looking at the visible.  I was all about the leaves of the tree—the study methods and the campus life decisions. But to understand the Mexican students, I needed to see the invisible. I needed to learn about the roots–-the values and beliefs and the expressions of truth. Those invisible “roots” give strength and nourishment to a culture just like a tree’s roots keep it stable and growing.

Students in the US would freely answer when I asked questions. That ease of response was visible. Mexican students did NOT respond freely. That visible observation (of no response) made no sense to me—I didn’t understand why they would not respond in classroom discussions.

But look below the surface. My Mexican students had a very different set of “cultural roots” for education than my US roots. They believed that the teacher should do all the talking, and the students should listen respectfully. Their roots valued respect for the teacher–-and out of respect for the teacher, the student should certainly not give the answers! The visible actions grew out of invisible roots. When I started to understand those roots of values, beliefs, and key truth statements, I also started to understand their actions and words. I stopped saying “I will never understand,” because as I learned the roots, I started to understand the shoots! As I learned the invisible, suddenly the visible began to make sense. I hope you enjoy that same growing understanding of the people in your global life.

Leave a comment and you could win the Intro to Culture Course. Two of you will win!!

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Mark Hedinger

Practical Visionary. Director of Culture Bound.. Husband. Life-long learner.




  1. Amy Young

    Mark, this is such a helpful way to picture all that is going on with culture! Yes, consider the roots . . . I look forward to this illustration unfolding over the months!

  2. J

    Culture is so complex! The tree analogy is helpful to remember that actions stem from beliefs and values.

  3. Mark Morgenstern

    Mark, I love the idea that different roots produce different shoots. If we compare pictures of various trees and their root structures, it would really be ridiculous to mix and match tops and bottoms. But that is functionally what we are doing when we negatively judge someone else’s external cultural actions while we’re assuming that they have the same roots invisible under the soil as we do. And they don’t! This was a fun thing to think about.

  4. Christine Paterson

    I have heard many different analogies for the hiddenness of deep culture – an iceberg, an onion, a ‘shared lens’… But this is the first time I have heard it likened to the roots of a tree! Makes absolute sense and the analogy fits very well. Like Amy, I also look forward to seeing how this unfolds in coming months!


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