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!

College and Your Mental Health Matters

Recently, I heard a tragic story of a young man, a college student, who attended my daughter’s alma mater, Penn State University. This young man was a vibrant and active student on  the State College campus. Upon hindsight and without detailing a very personal family tragedy,  this young man had displayed behaviors and attitudes indicative of a mental health matter. While with his friends one night, he either jumped or fell from a balcony. Fortunately he survived, but he lived as a quadriplegic, unable to speak until his death at age 22. I wonder whether this could have been avoided if this young man had received critical counseling interventions. There were signs of course, that if recognized, could have been  addressed-if his friends only knew what they were.


The onset of mental health conditions tend to emerge before age 24 and one in five young adults will experience a condition during college.  College is part academic development, career development and personal development. We tend to focus on the first two, and forget that-youngsters are emerging and young adults. Many  youngsters experience -living on their own, away from parents, familiar surroundings, and though there are controlled, and structured settings and accommodations like campus housing and student dormitories, little focus is placed on psychological adjustments, attitudes, or total mental health and comprehensive wellness.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration[SAMHSA] in partnership with National Alliance on Mental Illness[NAMI] have just released guidance on mental health specifically during the college years. They suggest that we start the conversation-talk about mental health, destigmatize conditions and not attach blame, but rather offer help and resources, listen, and educate yourself and others about what a mental health disorder looks, feels and sounds like.

Very important to note is that mental health conditions are not  uncommon, and that you nor anyone else should feel alone. There is always someone who can relate, will listen and will provide the necessary assistance in order to help people manage a diagnosis and cope with a mental health condition if present.


Feeling down or depressed? That’s ok, unless the feelings persist, last too long, are accompanied by other disturbing feelings, or you feel as though you can’t manage your daily life. No matter what, do not ever give up on yourself or your ability to come out of this  temporary ‘funk’ landing on the brighter side of life.  But, if deemed serious, you can manage that, too.

The highlights the importance of seeking help from someone you trust. You may come to understand that it may be due to ‘Freshman Depression'[which could occur at any time, not only freshman year], mid-term jitters, lack of sleep, an argument with a good friend, and relatively minor, non-alarming life circumstances. Until you have a conversation with an adult or professional, you won’t know how serious it may be.

Seek out someone with whom you can talk through the feelings or thoughts or behaviors that are disturbing to you. It is extremely important that you educate yourself and others about the warning signs of mental health conditions. Talk through and about your feelings, learn to recognize the signs, and tell someone, whether it is for you or a friend.


Some symptoms or feelings may be considered within the range of ‘normal’, and can be attributed to recent changes or stressors in your life that can underlie coping behavior changes like poor eating habits-lack of appetite or overeating. Could be fear, anxiety, or a recent loss. You won’t know unless you start the conversation. Find the on-campus counseling center or seek off-campus counseling services. Or go to the school’s medical station/office[every school has one], since physical health and mental health are often related.

Let’s save lives, for it may be yours, mine or a perfect stranger. Be informed, and educate others, too. No one should suffer in silence, or feel that they are alone. Start the conversation at your school, in your community, or in your home.

Keep these thoughts in mind when you start your conversation:

Mental health conditions are common. In fact, one in five young adults will experience a mental health condition during college. If you develop a mental illness, remember that you are not alone.

Exercise, sleep and diet are important. Your physical health and mental health are connected and impact one another. Remember to take care of your body in order to take care of your mind.

Know where and when to seek help, and who to talk to. Make yourself aware of resources and care options on and off campus. If you start to feel overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to reach out to the counseling center or a trusted advisor.

Understand your health privacy laws. Devise a plan on whether and how you will allow your school to share sensitive information about your mental health with your family or a trusted adult. Find out if your school has an authorization form, or use the one included in our guide.

There are warning signs. Verse yourself on the warning signs of mental health conditions and how to respond. Being informed can save lives. Get the guide!

To Educate Through the Cultural Lens

broker tripleThe existing definitions of family engagement in education encompass and emphasize the importance of school staff to support students in multiple ways. To best accomplish this, staff must build an awareness of how their beliefs and assumptions about family and community engagement influence their interactions with families and ultimately, their children-the students. The school community’s demographics can provide valuable information about what may best support both student growth and family engagement.

It is helpful for educators to ask themselves some guiding questions, individually and collectively, to increase the positive effects of their work with families.

One such question might be:

If I had a child in school, what specific information would I want to know and hear from teachers at the beginning of the school year?


How and when would I want to be first approached with a problem?

In answering these questions as teachers engage or interact with families, it is important that information be provided to families in lieu of the multi-cultural presence in most schools. Sensitivity to cultural differences or diversity helps to prevent or exacerbate any barriers or roadblocks to partnerships or involvement of parents at school.

Educators’ beliefs are critical to their success in working with families. Most parents, even multi-culturally speaking, will usually wait for some sort of guidance from teachers at school before interacting with them, and the families’ beliefs will influence how they interact with educators. If an educator believes that a family will do little to support academics at home, then they will usually hold lower expectations of the child/student. An unfair and harmful assumption or an ‘immaculate perception’! Such family’s involvement with the educators at school will likely be minimal, thus missing important reciprocal supports each provides the other.

If an educator, on the other hand, believes that a parent is the child’s first teacher, and therefore inherently supports learning at home, the family is likely to be more responsive to interacting with teachers at school. Educators are in a powerful position to shape and influence the nature of family and community engagement at school. Therefore, they must reflect inward first when engagement does not occur, for the problem often lies in the communication framed by the cultural lens!

One’s own cultural background influences how one communicates and views others’ communication. People view the world through the lens of culture―a system of beliefs, customs, and behaviors that are filtered through our experiences. It is important for educators to understand that their cultural lens may differ from the cultural lens of families in the school community and to recognize that those lenses are equally valuable. Educators can and must effectively interact with families and community members from differing backgrounds and build relationships that support effective partnerships and student achievement.

Understanding cultural norms and beliefs can overcome challenges in interactions between people with different backgrounds.

Individualism and Collectivism are two contrasting value systems that influence communication, learning, and family or community engagement in schools. Individualism focuses on the needs of the individual. Individualistic cultures foster and promotes independence, individual achievement, self-expression, individual thinking and personal choice. In collectivist cultures, one determines his or her identity largely through interactions of the community. Collectivist cultures foster interdependence, group success, adherence to norms, respect for authority, and group consensus.

As contrasting systems, these two terms are not meant to stereotype cultural behavior, but to provide insights on how contrasting values can make a difference in parenting, school and classroom practices. No culture or society can be characterized as entirely one or the other and even within a particular ethnic group people are diverse and reflect differing values depending on their own unique experiences. Schools normally reflect the predominant culture of  society, which can lead to challenges when educators interact with people whose backgrounds differ from their own. Whether the school reflects a collectivist or individualist cultural lens, educators benefit from having knowledge and sensitivity for the other, AND respects and values the cultural, familial and individual differences as valid.

Developing cultural competence/proficiency helps educators ensure families have successful experiences with schools and the education system. One of the most valuable skills educators can have is cultural competence: the ability to work across cultures in a way that acknowledges and respects each culture. To work toward cultural competence, we must look within for a deeper understanding of ourselves, our cultural lens and the culture of the people we serve. We must also act on that knowledge, turning our understanding into more effective programs, services and meaningful alliances with families. This is particularly salient when our commonly shared and chief interest is the comprehensive development and total wellness of all children.

 When school staff understands and honors the attitudes, values, norms, and beliefs of a culture, they are using a cultural lens that goes beyond the superficial aspects of that culture, such as major holidays, manner of dress, foods specific to the culture, and family customs. Understanding and honoring a culture extends to paying attention to how culture might impact teaching and learning, social interactions within the class, and cultural values that respect learning by observing. Build capacity for engaging with diverse cultures and build competencies needed to effect optimal outcomes in learning and engagement.

Have a productive school year and do supplement instruction with content-area resources that present more realistic and multi-culturally-infused materials and [historical] references!

Food for thought:

How can we ensure a child’s future will be bright and successful when kept ignorant of their culturally rich past?



Findings From The Minority Mental Health Month Twitter Chat


The National Institute of Minority and Mental Health Disparities[NIMHD] co-hosted a Twitter chat in observance of Minority Mental Health Month with Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration[SAMHSA] on July 12.

The #MinorityMH chat addressed the mental health of adults in minority groups at the community level and reached health organizations, researchers, federal agencies, mental health professionals, community health workers, and other members of the public health community.

Here are some discussed points and shared resources:

Factors Affecting Minority Mental Health

  • Stigma and fear associated with mental health contribute to a lack of understanding about illness, undiagnosed conditions, and treatment prevention in communities.
  • The limited number of culturally competent caregivers and resources, treatment discrimination, and structural inequalities lead to distrust, misdiagnosis, and not seeking care.
  • Socioeconomic factors hindering care include poor quality of care, inadequate health centers, finances and transportation for care, and limited Internet access.
  • Psychological distress caused by racial discrimination, poverty, environment, and other social determinants of health contribute to higher prevalence rates of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, depression, suicide, and substance abuse in minority communities.
  • There’s a need to change the narrative and encourage more minorities to talk about depression and seek care, particularly for elders, youth of color, African American and Latino males, and LGBT individuals.

Practices for Addressing Minority Mental Health in Communities

  • Various organizations are working to educate community members, teach care providers, and support research that helps us better understand factors affecting minority mental health.
  • Forming community-level help groups and forums, actively reaching out to minorities, considering faith-based partners, having culturally competent and diverse staff, serving as role models, and good screening at all levels of care are some methods for addressing the issue.
  • Community organizations are researching better solutions for specific groups and illness, examining race-based differential treatment, creating training programs for health professionals, and ensuring that community centers have multilingual resources to contribute to improve mental health services.

The takeaway here is to educate, inform, educate and inform. Next, communities that have been and remain underserved and underrepresented in availing themselves to mental health service providers, need access to licensed and qualified agencies with culturally responsive professionals in their area. Medical offices should be a referral source, and staff should be mindful of key indicators of mental health conditions when patients come in for routine doctor’s visits. Schools should be equally as mindful when it concerns students in attendance. Health fairs, held at school and in the community should have a forum for such information dissemination, and have readily available resources to make referrals.

The stigma attached to mental health can only be removed with education and outreach to minority populations. They tend to be the groups whose cultural beliefs have perpetuated and attached negative stigma to those who seek mental health counseling or individuals with mental health diagnoses. That must be countered by plainly talking about mental health, and bringing it out into the open. Make it a part of normal conversations and eliminate the shame.

There is no shame in seeking help! Reach out and spread the word; make it ok and learn to manage life with a mental health diagnosis. Teach families to cope, manage and support their relatives who have been diagnosed. Teach them to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, so they know when to seek professional advice-consultation, treatment. Don’t let a family member feel they are alone. Don’t let children feel they are bad people, either. Nobody, ADULT OR CHILD, should go through it alone–without professional help AND unconditional love AND familial support!

Culturally Tailored Mental Health Resources for Minorities