Understanding Culture: Melting the Iceberg and Peeling the Onion

Understanding Culture: Melting the Iceberg and Peeling the Onion

by Felicity Menzies

Some cultural differences are visible. Others are hidden. Visible cultural elements include artefacts, symbols, and practices such as: art and architecture; language, colour, and dress; social etiquette and traditions. Although they are the most obvious, visible cultural differences make up only ten percent of our cultural identities.

The iceberg analogy

The iceberg provides a useful analogy. The small ‘tip of the iceberg’ that can be seen above the water level represents visible cultural elements. The 90% of the iceberg that remains unseen below the surface represents the hidden cultural differences.

Hidden differences include cultural values and assumptions. Values are the worth we attach to something or a broad tendency to prefer one state of affairs to another—for example, freedom of speech, group harmony, or gender equality. Assumptions are ideas that are accepted as truths to even when there is no proof—for example, ‘I control my own destiny’.

The onion analogy

Others prefer to explain culture by using the onion analogy. In this model, culture is the deep inner core of abstract ideas that manifest as increasingly tangible outer layers. The inner core equates to the submerged base of the iceberg: values and assumptions. These fundamental building blocks are encircled by specific beliefs, attitudes, and conventions.

Beliefs are like assumptions but more specific: ‘If I achieve material success, I will have greater social status’. Attitudes involve a positive or negative evaluation of an object or idea: ‘The best decisions are made rationally’. Conventions are acceptable behaviours: ‘I eat rice with my hand’. Beliefs, attitudes, and conventions drive cultural systems and institutions.

Systems and institutions organise culture into formal practices. Political systems make decisions for societies; economic systems facilitate the production and distribution of products and services; legal systems impose sanctions for deviance from cultural norms; educational systems enable the transmission of knowledge; social systems guide reproduction and child-rearing; and religious systems manage uncertainty.

Using the onion analogy, the outer layer corresponds to the tip of the iceberg. It comprises all those visible features that characterise a particular culture. Symbols, for example, and the symbolic behaviours that make up rituals, hold particular meaning that is recognised only by those who share the culture. Man-made artefacts and products— including tools and even computers—are invested with cultural significance. Heroes and legendary figures—people who are dead or alive, real or imaginary—embody the characteristics that are prized in a culture, and serve as models for behaviour.

The various parts of a cultural system are interrelated. Together the entire system expresses a group’s attempts to adapt to its social and physical environment.

Melting the iceberg and peeling the onion

Both the iceberg and onion analogies highlight the relative importance of the hidden elements of culture. Cultural problems cannot be resolved at the surface.  Focusing on the visible features of culture alone will not prevent misunderstanding and conflict. Tangible cultural features, such as differences in language or dress, might present barriers, but the less obvious characteristics of culture cause the most problems.

Understanding the values, assumptions, and beliefs of a cultural group is critical to bridging cultural differences.  For an effective resolution, it is necessary to dive beneath the surface or peel away the outer layers and focus on core values. These elements are invisible and subconscious. They are often overlooked.

Spencer-Oatey, H. (2000). Culturally speaking: Managing rapport through talk across cultures. London: Continuum.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.