Cultures can be well thought of as sand dunes, as explained by Professor Jürgen Bolten. They are at the same time like the shifting sands of time and the firm sediment, resistant to change. Cultures have fundamental behavioural rules that are formalized over centuries through laws, natural environments, and traditionalized rules, for example. These are often considered non-negotiable and changing them takes at the very least a very long time. Cultures also have aspects that are more flexible, relative and subject to change. The fundamental aspects form the sediment of the dune, and the more relative aspects are the top, subject to the shifting winds.
The cultural aspects at the top are more related to individuals or smaller communities, and can be negotiated. The sediment is more like the structure, laws and unnegotiated ‘facts’ of a culture or society. However, the sand at the top can also move further downwards and become more firm and less negotiable. And even the sediment part can change, e.g. in extreme circumstances. The dune has three layers, ‘can’, ‘should’, and ‘have to’. The content of the layers guide the behaviour of the people affected by a certain culture.
The way the cultural sand dune shapes our behaviour and views can be understood by considering the different layers of the dune and their content. The dune has three layers, ‘can’, ‘should’, and ‘have to’. The top layer tells us what we can do, based on our preferences and choices. For instance, you can choose to walk, cycle or take a bus to work. The middle layer tells us what we should do. For instance, you should arrive on time at work, even if you choose to walk instead of taking the bus. The bottom layer tells us what we have to do. For instance, you have to pay the bus fare, if you want to take the bus to work.
Not all cultures have the same content in each layer. For instance, something that is a ‘should’ in Finland, like taking your shoes off when entering someone’s home, is only a ‘can’ in many other countries. This is further explained in picture (click to enlarge) and the Dune Model video. When working with people from other cultures, you can also observe and expand your knowledge of the content of their cultural sand dunes.