Among the metaphors and definitions that we can use to describe it, culture can be also compared to an iceberg…have you ever heard of the “iceberg of culture”? It is a model that was designed by the American anthropologist Edward Hall (see “Beyond Culture”, Edward Hall 1976). Let’s find out more through this exercise!

 Iceberg of culture

The items we placed underwater in the exercise are just examples of “less visible” cultural elements. In fact, they can be much more: can you think of other elements? If you remember well, we have already tackled this issue in the first section of Module 3.

The iceberg of culture metaphor raises our awareness of two important issues:

  1. in every culture, there are features which are more visible and we can detect immediately through our senses: these might include language, food, clothing, music, the way people greet…
  2. A culture possesses further cultural elements, which are less recognizible and requires more time to be discovered, through interaction, study, experience and a motivation to dive and explore the “underwater” dimension: these might include humor, beliefs about raising children, concept of privacy, the role of the family…

Our projects, especially workcamps, but also medium and long term volunteering are a great opportunity to discover both parts of the iceberg. In the process of “exploration” it is important to adhere to the following principles:

  • be curious and motivated to know more about a culture;
  • do not judge the book by its cover, meaning: be patient and do not jump to conclusion about a culture basing your opinions only on its more visible elements (the tip of the iceberg);
  • when you interact and communicate with members of a culture you are not familiar with, keep in mind that your gestures, habits and ways to express yourself might be interpreted in different ways. Do not take for granted that you will always be understood and that you will always understand others: your way to interact is not universal!

In the next exercise, we will see how easy it is to misunderstand a culture when we judge it only taking into consideration its visible manifestations.