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Culture – an iceberg analogy

Culture is not something which is always easy to understand. Because of this, I am often asked what it is, what defines it and how it can be sufficiently explained. When asked, I usually pick up a pen and start drawing something like this:

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In 1976, Edward T. Hall (an American anthropologist) developed the iceberg analogy of culture. Hall reasoned that if culture is an iceberg, there are some aspects which are visible and can be seen (above the water), and a larger aspect which is hidden beneath the surface (below the water). Let me explain this in more depth…

The external conscious part of culture is what we can physically see (i.e. the tip of the iceberg). These parts of culture are those which are often encountered first when emerging yourself into a new country or culture, such as architecture, food, art, music, dance, religious practices, types of dress, language or greetings and more. This includes behaviours which you can see such as people kissing as they greet others, shaking hands, queuing, holding eye contact or hand/facial gestures.

The internal unconscious part of culture is beneath the surface of what we can see (i.e. below the water line). These parts of culture are those which are related to or cause those parts which you can see, such as beliefs, values, motivations, world views, gender roles, etiquette, social or familial rules, importance of time, concepts of self and many more. These patterns of thought underlie the behaviours which can physically be seen.

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So there you have it! It is a nice, quick and simple way of explaining culture, and one which I often use at the start of training sessions to help people think about what culture is. Try this and you will usually see a few surprised faces in the room! Why? Well many things that we take for granted on a day to day basis are simply facets of our own culture, and yet, we do not always recognise them for what they are. Culture is a fascinating thing…

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3 Comments

  1. Nor says:

    This post is listed in a widget under the ‘culture’ category in my blog. Thank you.

  2. suzana says:

    Hello. Thank you for your post!
    I would like to ask in what book Edward Hall developed the analogy to the iceberg? CAn you tell me?

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