Set a Crash Course for the Culture Iceberg

written by Doug Price
“…And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!” What follows a statement like this is understandably a venture into the less obvious, the misunderstood, even the invisible.

The “culture iceberg” is one popular permutation of the analogy that has been bobbing its way through the decades. Freud originally applied the iceberg image to the human psyche. Edward T. Hall (1976) and Gary Weaver (1986) broadened its application to cultures. Decades later, you now find hundreds, if not thousands, of versions of iceberg models adapted to every nuance of interaction between cultures.

Academicians define culture by internal and external attributes of a society’s behaviors, beliefs, values, attitudes, etc. There are more than I need to list, but the key ingredient to any definition you find is that a culture must be shared. You can’t have your own personal culture.

photo credit by working  together global

Set your Titanic on a crash course for a culture iceberg. Get humble. Get curious. Get educated. These are your life rafts. It’s not just a tired metaphor. It’s science! Well, this part at least: Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy, along with some fun math involving the density of ice and seawater, tells us that 90% of an iceberg’s mass floats unseen beneath the surface.

When it comes to studies of cultural competency, or cross cultural training, you start by realizing that only 10% of the information you perceive is related to your immediate environment, like appearances and behaviors, sounds and smells. The social scientist in us can break these down into sensory categories:

Visible: body language, gestures, expressions, clothing
Audible: words, accents, tonality, volume, silence
Tactile: greetings, handholding, touching, embracing, kissing

Arming yourself with this 10% knowledge will get you through one or two practical challenges, like limiting your own insulting behavior while at the same time pretending not to be insulted. How do I not make a fool of myself on vacation in Turkey? Why is my American friend always touting his economic accomplishments? Why does my Korean coworker ask me such personal questions?

How and why you even ask questions is crucial to any success you attain in penetrating to a deeper understanding of a person’s culture. It’s an art! Your own motivations drive your own reactions which will fall somewhere on a spectrum from apathy to empathy. Are you content with 10%, or can you shoot for at least a passing grade?

The invisible 90% world of culture will not present itself readily. The most worldly-wise of you will not immediately ascertain a person’s underlying beliefs, values, biases, and thought patterns. These deep structures come from centuries or even millennia of collective shared experiences.

View another culture with humbleness and curious wonder. I urge you. This strategy will get you past the awkwardness, discomfort, apprehension, fear, and prejudice that lurks within your own solidified misunderstandings. When you are curious, you are open minded. When you are curious, people become art, and the only thing left for science is quiet, selfless empiricism.

For more information about cultural competency or any other services at LTC please call us at 888-456-1626 or visit us online at LTClanguagesolutions.com.

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Anonymous

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