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Is Culture an Iceberg or a Wave?

While culture is like an iceberg, I believe it is even more like a wave. Because with both you can still see only a fraction of what is actually happening, but a wave is also ever changing, can have highs and lows and can be unpredictable. Some waves have shallow bottoms while others break over deeper territory.


The same holds true for culture. An iceberg is more static than culture which is dynamic across location, time and beyond. Personalities are also varied and change throughout a day, so developing interaction intelligence - it’s an ongoing process, not an event.


Like a culture or person, there are usually many waves in one country. They probably share certain consistent traits by location, but rarely is there a moment or wave that is exactly the same. Local knowledge is deeply embedded, taken for granted and not altogether within the realm of conscious awareness.


Things happening thousands of miles away can affect them. Also, every wave is usually accompanied by currents that are not visible to the inexperienced eye, but can be fatal. The idea that there is always going to be something out of awareness is one thing. Getting comfortable with that, is altogether different.


Some credit Freud with originating the iceberg metaphor, but we can thank the cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, for proposing that like an iceberg, culture has an invisible component. It’s human to judge people and make decisions based on what they can see, but he proposed that effective cross-cultural communication required people to be aware of the 80-90% that is out of awareness, including Values, Assumptions and Beliefs (VABS).


The eminent interculturalist and sociologist, Dr. Milton Bennet suggested, in a blog from an IDRInstitute blog, that we should get rid of the iceberg as a metaphor for culture altogether because it can create that misunderstanding that culture is also frozen or unbudging, but why get rid of it if we can just add to it? I’ve seen people who aren’t ready for complex cross-cultural theory respond quickly to the iceberg metaphor. It is foundational and while I believe it is important, I agree that it is not sufficient to honor what it means to be cultural humans interacting within a global group dynamic.


The iceberg is great, but a wave also captures the dynamic nature of human interactions. Therefore here are a few measure we can all practice in order to minimize the damage of assuming that cultures and people are fixed:



Avoid unhealthy generalizations

  • Ex. The Chinese are …. Americans are ….


Replace superlatives with qualifying language

  • Ex. You always do that. Everyone I know. All of them are…


Be specific

  • Ex. switch American - US American

  • Ex. The French are so… to The people I met from France were….


Practice the Shared Values Cycle: Respect, Accept, Adapt, Do No Harm, Repeat



The process of getting good at cross-cultural dynamics is like learning to ride a wave - it looks easier than it is. There is a technical side that can’t be learned in a classroom alone and mastery requires a lifetime of practice. Luckily, the more experience, the easier it is to enjoy the ride.


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