This blog is boring? Here’s a good one: on coconut, public relations, diversity and political correctness!

A few friends send me messages inviting me to be more provocative. This blog is too serious…some write. Others say I should be more daring…They are definitley correct and I will do my is a nice one….for you to comment…Ipra is the International Public Relations Association, a high standing and reputed association of some 1000 senior professionals from all countries. It has a private discussion group which often is used by members as a sounding board for ideas and information.This recent and highly amusing and interesting exchange is a great metaphor of global public relations, diversity and political correctness in the use of language from the perspective of our more senior colleagues. I apologise to participants for having omitted names, as each one of them deserves full recognition for being ironic, provocative, intelligent and worthy…but I have been once reproached by Ipra years ago for having cited names of participants to a private discussion group, and i don’t want to incur in the same incident….

Here we go:

-on September 15 a senior board member writes:

Dear friends

Is ‘coconut’ a term of abuse in your country?

As part of an academic exercise (name of client) has developed a multi-layer model within the context of interculturality and proposes to use the coconut as a metaphor.

The context:

The ‘Coconut Model’ groups cultural differences into five layers, including those that are apparent, those that are unspoken and those that are unconscious.The tool provides a mental model and a share vocabulary for managing cultural diversity. The Coconut Model help teams of travellers work together and encourage them to grasp the core values of a culture by looking at each situation from multiple perspectives.

Layer 5 is the skin of the coconut. Cultural differences at this layer are readily apparent and easily researched. their religious roots. Layer 4 is thick peel of the coconut.This layer contains systems and institutions,

Layer 3 is the coconut wood, the separation area between perceptible and hidden. Layer 2 the soft seed of the coconut.This layer discloses the beliefs, the norms and values

Layer 1 is the liquid core of the coconut, the less tangible.However the institute has been informed that the word coconut is a term of abuse to some in Africa and possibly elsewhere. Is this true? Should they abandon the use of this metaphor?Your comments welcome.

-and here are the 13 responses which immediately followed from as many countries:


The term coconut is only an abuse term when one is referred to as “coconut head” This can mean dull person, stubborn etc. I personally do not seen anything wrong in using the term “coconut model” because even in some African countries it also represents strength.

The institute should not abandon the use of the term. As long as it is explained, it should not hurt anybody.


I apologize for the colour terms below, but this is the only way I can describe the context:

In some more tribal indigenous communities in Australia, the term “coconut” is applied disparagingly by indigenous people to those indigenous people they consider to have crossed the cultural barrier into more mainstream “white” society.

People here are described as “coconuts” because, while they are dark skinned on the outside, they are soft white and hollow inside.


Anything can be taken as a term of derision … as a Welshman I know only too well.

But your friends at ….. stand to make themselves a laughing stock if they pursue the use the Coconut analogy:

– botanically the Coconut is really a ‘fibrous dupe’… and we all know what a dupe is

– it has only three layers not four as they suggest the fibrous husk or coirthe shell endo carpthe fruit testa or endospermplus the juice .. which is highly nutritious not vague or intangible.Political correctness and cultural sensitivity are fine but for academics scientific accuracy is better.


This would be a very relevant metaphor in the Caribbean


Yes.The term coconut when used in reference to a person is abusive.

Coconut in most coastal areas of the part of my country grows by the shores of the rivers ,most times unattended to . So when a person is referred to as a coconut, it simply means that the person is one who has grown without being trained in all respects. He grows and falls as the seasons dictate.

When somebody is referred to as having a coconut head , it implies that that person is hollow upstairs with watery content upstairs only good for what others can make use of.

Rather than the term coconut I suggest to the research team to use Onions which can adequately be used to explain the different layers the coconut layers have been used .

I wish the team good luck.


I was sure I’d heard of the term ‘coconut’ mentioned in the UK media as a term of abuse referring to a coloured person who was ‘white on the inside’. I found the following on Wikipedia:


(U.S./UK/AUS) a black or Hispanic person who is perceived to act “like a white person” (a coconut is dark on the outside but white on the inside)

(Peru) gay, effeminate, also nickname for blacks – see “Crocodile”

Hope this is of some use. I’m not sure how widespread the term is used – I certainly haven’t heard it used widely in the UK. It would be a pity if we were to lose the use of the word just because of some mindless people who use it to hurt and ridicule.


Hello friends,

Coconut head in my part of Nigeria is a term used to describe stuborn children.

The metaphor will probably make people see Coconut in a different perspective.


I am now unable to access the www as I don’t have sufficient bandwidth where I am at this time. I suggest someone get the right technical words for all the relevant layers….

The coconut works as a metaphor for me and I see no problem with it in the Thailand and neighbouring area. A ‘coconut head’ is a stubborn and possibly dumb person. A widow is an ‘old and creamy coconut’ out of want and desire due to her long abstinence. These can be explained. Otherwise, no problems.

The outer peel is indeed where any blemishes and pock marks are easily apparent.

The next layer called ‘copra’ is where the brown coconut fibre comes from. It is matted when dry and used as an ersatz peat/fuel. Also very good as a binder in compost and as a shell for growing aerobics (such as orchids).The hard shell makes a variety of durable utensils when properly dried; bowls, spoons, etc.The meat or cream is where the coconut milk is pressed, for the richness of curries. (Remember the widow…)The water/juice is one of nature’s purest liquids and was successfully used by Allied soldiers in WW2 and those in the US Vietnam engagement as an emergency fluid filler when blood and artificial substitutes for transfusion were not available. It is pure, has good sugars, and does not congeal.Metphorise away!

I have copied this to my colleagues in Bangkok who may want to agree/disagree and/or add their coconut anecdotes.


Interesting piece of culture knowledge

Here in Mauritius you can have different metaphor regarding “coconut”

In our local language we refer to “coconut as “coco”

If we say this person is a “coco” it means that this person is an intelligent one.

If we say this person is a “coco Piqué” it means that this person is mad.

If a lover says to his or her partner “Mon coco” it means my darling.

Mauritius local language is creole derive from African, Indian, French and English languages


Please let us not be unnecessarily emotional about the term coconut. Like xxxx said, any thing can be taken as a term of derision.

It is just like saying because a razor blade can harm the fingers, one should not use it to shape the pencil.

In India : a WOG (Westernized Oriental Gentleman). Brown on the outside (colour/race), white inside (worldview/mind)


May I summarise?

The upshot is that ‘the coconut’ will be a memorable metaphor. I hope that there be sufficient layers to make it work. I stay with five, as there is a soft layer just beneath the outer skin.


A metaphor is obviously very useful to explaining the model, but quite apart from possible connotations of the coconut (whether negative or positive or neither) aren’t you in trouble anyway if people are already arguing about what layers a coconut comprises? And isn’t a coconut too strongly associated with ONE culture bracket (the tropical beach, etc), and only ONE outside appearance.

Do’t you need something that can look different on the outside but be the same on the inside; and vice versa?

Wouldn’t you be better selecting something more neutral and universal, which everybody sees in the same way, and which has a huge variety of external appearances and internal workings?

For example, a cassette player (or nowadays an ipod!) or a radio or TV.

I find that a really useful “model” for explaining the differences between image (what the machine looks like), reputation (the quality of the music), profile (the volume setting) and message (the words of the song).

Such a “model” is geographically universal, innately muti-cultural, and adaptable to the idea of one basic item (human being) with infinite variations at different levels/layers.


I shared the issue with a colleague in our office who is working in the area of Intercultural Projects and Communication. Here is what she said:


Thanks. Have you also heard the term coconut used to describe certain cultures, those which are hard to crack but softer at the core. In contrast to peach cultures, which are fairly easy to begin with but there’s a hard core inside.

 How’s that? Your opinions?


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One Reply to “This blog is boring? Here’s a good one: on coconut, public relations, diversity and political correctness!”

  1. Coconut model? ! What’s next?
    The nut cracking squad model of practice?…The “peel the onion” strategy?…the banana peel slippery slope?

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