The Iceberg Concept of Culture


Icebergs are famously disproportionate in terms of visibility. You can see the top 10%, but 90% of its mass is below the surface. Culture is similar. You can observe about 10% of it, but to comprehend the rest, you have to go deeper. This is known as the iceberg model of culture. It was developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall who, in the 1970s, defined many of our fundamental ideas about culture today. Hall’s model has provided a great way for us to capture the complexity of human cultures.

The need for mindful awareness or sensitivity to the ‘essence’ of others beyond the immediately visible is critical, especially when we are engaging and interacting with the diverse cultures represented in the classrooms of today. This means that we must be mindful and cognizant of the existence of the layers of culture that are at surface and those aspects below the surface as nuanced characteristics.  In other words, for an iceberg, there is the part that lays above the water line-above the surface, that we can immediately and clearly recognize as being an iceberg. The iceberg that we see and identify as such is merely a small part of that total iceberg as it is. In this case,  it is about culture.

When you first interact with a new culture, the top 10% is clearly evident. This is the part of culture that you can identify with your five senses. These things matter. The visible aspects of culture are important parts of how cultures interact and maintain their sense of unity. However, they also tend to be fluid. Recipes and games and arts can all change over time, and language shifts with each generation. Therefore, we can say that the cultural facets of the top 10% of the culture iceberg have a relatively low emotional load. They matter to people, but they can also be changed and altered without challenging the existence of a culture or  ideas about who they are.

We aren’t able to see exactly what lays just under the surface nor can we see all aspects of culture when we rely upon the surface indicators alone. There is much more to icebergs and culture than meets the eye. We, as human beings and social creatures, aren’t that simple. Neither are icebergs. If the surface answers the ‘what’ and the ‘simple who’ questions about a culture, then the below surface levels answer the ‘why’s’, and ‘how’s’ and the more complex ‘who’s’.                                                                                                           There is surface culture and there is deep culture, and the characteristics considered below the surface are the unspoken and unconscious rules of culture which are deeply submerged. The above the surface, immediately recognizable characteristics of culture is what we see when we’re introduced to a new group of people, but it’s literally just the tip of the iceberg. The minute we dip below the surface, things get more intense.

In Hall’s model, the 90% of culture that is below the surface can be divided into two categories. The first are those things which are near the surface, but still hidden. We can think of these as the unspoken rules of a society. unspoken rules are nonverbally communicated, like the way we show emotions, personal space, manners, and even our definitions of beauty. These aspects are just below the surface and takes time for an outsider to understand, as they aren’t immediately visible. The emotional load is heavier, and so attempts to change or alter them, will leave people to believe their culture is being threatened or misappropriated.

Cultures are defined more by what is unseen than seen. The surface is the place where limited information about a group of people becomes generalized and become stereotyped characteristics, which is unfair and unfortunate. It is a greater level of ignorance that perpetuates all negative stereotypes, and as an iceberg, 90% of pertinent aspects that define culture is unseen, unspoken and reaching those levels defies any immaculate perceptions, assumptions or stereotypes.

As the saying goes,” You can’t judge a book by its cover.”, for many times, it isn’t until we have read beyond the surface, that a plot emerges or we can truly understand an individual or a cultural group.

At the core of an iceberg, a culture, or even an individual who in essence, is a mini surface level reflection of their cultural group, is where the bulk of what defines it is found. At the core of culture there are concepts of self, childrearing, definitions of adulthood, gender roles[sex, age, class], family or kinship networks, and the tempo of society. These are the subconscious parts of culture that people adhere to without much conscious thought;  the values that define a culture.  To understand them, one would have to live among this culture for a long time to become absolutely fluid in the values. Should they change, it would fundamentally change what that culture is. Therefore, the heaviest emotional load is held at this level.

Relevance, you ask? To understand what culture really is, what it means to the group to which one belongs, is not easily acquired. Similarly, to understand any individual fully, is to first realize that humans are not one dimensional in any aspect. To stereotype a group based upon limited information or limited experience among that group, is to endeavor in ignorance.

Humans are social beings, and belonging to a group is an inherent desire and also a primary need. Children have a need to feel they belong, and as they/we age, that need becomes expressed differently, as it spreads outward into the greater society, which exists in groups or ‘sub’ cultures, too. Work, school, teams, neighborhoods, etc… all have what we term ‘cultures’. The message here is to acquire cultural competence, sensitivity, awareness, responsiveness and proficiency before endeavoring to presume intimate knowledge of any one person or group or family who stands before us.

Until we have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, NEVER ASSUME or judge. Never assume an understanding of someone’s life, unless lived, too. Never assume an understanding of someone’s pain, unless felt, too. Never assume an understanding of attitude or behavior, unless in the same or similar context, you can relate. Empathize, ask questions, seek understanding, be observant and actively listen.  Go ahead-immerse yourself!

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