Using Icebergs, Trees & Software to Talk About Culture

Culture School is in session! In this series, we take an aspect of intercultural theory and apply to daily life. Basically, our goal is to expose those cultural moonwalking bears. And because this blog is about culture and education, we consider each topic in the context of the classroom.

photo by maryatexitzero

How many definitions of culture do you think there are?

Many. Hundreds! There are so many definitions of culture out there that we couldn’t possibly keep track of all of them.

So, what do you do if you want to talk about culture with your students? Which definition do you choose?

We think some of the best definitions talk about culture via a metaphor. How about culture as an iceberg? Or a tree?  Or mental software?

Let’s take a look at each of these three metaphors.

Culture as an iceberg

What’s unique about an iceberg?

photo from What’s Up With Culture?

About 90% of it is under water!

This is a very good way to think about culture: we can only see the tip of it, and most of it is invisible (just like most of the iceberg). Only a very small part of culture can we experience with our senses (e.g. food, celebrations, greetings).

A large part of culture – what influences how we perceive things and how we behave (e.g. values, beliefs) – is hidden below the surface. It’s invisible unless you know it’s there. (Kinda like moonwalking bears).

These invisible, below-the-water values and beliefs are largely unconscious and unarticulated, but they determine – to a great extent – how and why we do things.

Culture as a tree

photo by ercan_baysal

Culture has often been compared to a tree. The visible part of the tree (branches, leaves, etc) represent the visible parts of culture (food, dress, music etc).

However, it is the part of the tree that is not visible – the roots – that determine what the tree looks like.

Similarly, it is the invisible aspects of culture (e. g. shared values and beliefs) that determine – to a large extent – how people dress, what, when and how they eat, how they dance, what behavior they find right or wrong.

Culture as mental software

Just like computers, people are “programmed” by their culture to think, act, feel in a certain way.

As opposed to computers, however, people do have individual personalities. Therefore, not everyone will represent all cultural norms all the time. But, even such deviation will happen within certain boundaries established by culture.

This programming of the mind happens outside of our awareness, which is the reason most of us cannot explain why we behave, think or act the way we do. Most people would not be able to connect their behavior with general characteristics of their culture.

For instance, take a look at this photo.

photo by frances1972

If you asked these people (assuming they’re US American) why they chose to sit where they are sitting, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you anything beyond I don’t know, I just felt like sitting there.

What they don’t realize is that their cultural mental software has programmed them to leave an empty seat between them and a stranger whenever possible.

What’s the point to all of this?

First, realizing that the hidden elements of culture “program” everybody to think, act, and perceive things in a certain way, is a huge step in increasing understanding between people.

For instance, when I (Anamaria) first came to the US, everybody was asking me “How are you?”. I would stop to give an answer, but they just kept going, without waiting for an answer.

This made me feel frustrated, angry, and hurt. Why would they ask if they didn’t care?

In Romania, if you ask someone “how are you?”, people take the words literally and give you an answer that you are supposed to wait for.

I just assumed it was like that everywhere else. WRONG!

After a while, I began to understand that, in my Romanian head, these words were programmed as a question that needed an answer. But they were programmed as a greeting in the minds of Americans that I was interacting with.

What a valuable revelation!

It’s not that Americans were being thoughtless and superficial! They were simply following their hidden cultural salutation rules.

So it wasn’t personal, it was cultural! And this made me feel all better. Actually, it made my entire American experience better because it taught me to look for these cultural programming variations, instead of taking things personally.

The second point is that cultural metaphors are a great way to explore culture with students. Here are 4 resources to explore culture as a metaphor:

  1. Interactive online cultural iceberg activity
  2. Cultural iceberg lesson plan and worksheet
  3. More metaphors for culture
  4. Book about culture as mental software

What comes to your mind when you think of culture?

About the Author: Anamaria Knight

Originally from Romania, Anamaria studied and taught in Romania, France, and the US. After earning a Master’s degree in intercultural communication she moved to North Carolina, where she works as an advisor for international teachers coming to teach in the U.S. and delivers intercultural workshops to K-12 teachers. Anamaria is @AnamariaKnight on Twitter.

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