Icebergs are downright awe-inspiring. They drift along in the sea looking majestic and complete, but that visible part is only a small portion of the whole. There’s a mammoth chunk of ice below the surface, anchoring the tip of the iceberg that we see. Knowing and remembering what’s underneath the water is extremely important if you’re the kind of ship captain who wants to avoid smashing your vessel into tiny pieces. An iceberg is a classic image used to represent culture. The parts we see—music, language, food, traditions, behaviors—aren’t just floating merrily along the surface; they’re anchored in an enormous mass of values and beliefs. The actions we can see are the “what.” The values and beliefs that we can’t see are the “why.” Why do Americans (defined here as people in the U.S.) prepare our children to leave home at age 18-ish? Well, we value independence and being self-sufficient. Why do we often use informal first names instead of titles like Ms., Mrs., and Mr.? Check out that strong belief in equality that’s hovering just below the cultural surface.
“Culture as iceberg” is a solid idea, but I prefer “culture as tree.” Trunk and branches and leaves visible above ground, with an astoundingly extensive root system underneath. Why? 1. Trees are living and growing, not unchanging (or melting). 2. Trees vary wildly in appearance, but they all share the same essence of being trees—we’re not likely to misidentify a tree as a fence or a zucchini plant. 3. Trees are flexible and can adapt to things they encounter, like power lines and sidewalks and amateur landscapers wielding pruning shears. 4. I really like trees.
Whether we’re comparing culture to trees or to icebergs, the key concept to understand is that what we see is grounded in what we don’t. People from cultures that are new to us aren’t crazy; their actions are based on what they value and believe. This is tricky, of course, because our very different root systems can lead us to butt heads or distrust each other.
Let’s consider a common example. In many cultures, making eye contact is disrespectful, especially with someone in a higher position of authority, but my Western self believes that avoiding eye contact demonstrates inattentiveness or shiftiness. I learned by trial and error (and error and error) that saying, “Look me in the eye when I’m talking to you!” to a Japanese student trying to show me respect by NOT looking at me leads to awkward moments of silent culture clash. A simple everyday action—making eye contact—triggers strong reactions that depend on the values lurking below.
Judging visible actions without taking invisible cultural values and beliefs into account may be quick and easy. However—and this is where the iceberg metaphor comes in handy—ignoring what’s underneath the surface can lead to a very unhappy ending.