Culture & Race

Iceberg Concept of Culture

One of my favorite ways to teach culture is with this diagram:

What is particularly intriguing to me is how it shows how culture can grow more stressful when you get past the ‘fun parts’ like food, dancing, and dress.  In intercultural relationships, simply talking about some of the rules guiding the unspoken and unconscious rules of culture brings a new level of awareness in understanding how to relate to one another.  When I use this in my classes with predominately white students, it always fascinates them to realize how differences in culture run deep even in their own families.  These conversations often begin like this:

“In my dad’s family, it’s like this, but my mom’s family is completely different.”

And then they start to chuckle and it dawns on them that they, too, come from a diverse family culture and begin to identify with how might foreigners feel navigating a new land.  I have all sorts of stories about how the deeper layers of culture play out – some funny, some sobering – that I may share more about as time goes on.  In the meantime, do any of these strike a chord for you?  What unspoken or unconscious cultural rules have caused more intense emotional loads in your life?

5 thoughts on “Iceberg Concept of Culture”

  1. The concept of ‘self’ one sums up a lot for me, ie. how a person relates to themselves and to others; and how a person constructs their sense of self THROUGH their relations with others. I think a lot of the issues I’m having with my mum, particularly her reaction to my relationship, stem from this. Being Nepalese, her concept of self seems to tie in with her children, who they marry and what they do…all this feeds back to her identity. For us kids, our sense of self is much more individualistic – I don’t really care what I do or what mum does, I see that as our respective business/lives, and I expect her to relate to me in the same way despite my relationship, choice of lifestyle etc. As all these things predomintantly play out at such a deeply unconcsious level, it’s difficult to find effective ways of communicating, even when we concsioulsy understand where the other is coming from…
    As for the unspoken cultural rules that are causing an intense emotional load between me and my partner – I can’t even put a finger on it at this stage!
    Thanks for the thoughtful post 🙂


  2. Very interesting way to look at it. I would say interactions are stressful once you get past the top part of the iceberg. So much of communication is non-verbal and once you get past the surface stuff, its hard to really have a good conversation. My wife is really good at asking questions and drawing things out of people – and my parents find that somewhat intrusive at times. But other times its helped with communication. The other side is my parents are not used to having to draw things out of someone and so my wife can get frustrated at times not fully understanding. The day to day interaction can then be pretty stressful and opportunities for miscommunication just increases.


    1. Ahhhh, this is so much my story too, though sometimes I think it can be helpful that I’m an outside because I can be seen as *safe* with information that may not be safe within the culture. My in-laws are very gracious to let me be who I am, and I have had to learn to pay attention to cues that may not be as direct as I expect. It always helps to spend time with them because they more we’re together, the more questions I seem to be able to ask. If I don’t get a direct answer, I usually either ask my husband or just assume it’s not proper for me to know – I’ve had to let go of some of my natural desire to have everything explicitly explained!


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