Iceberg or Beacon? How the Cultural Iceberg Guides Us Toward Greater Inclusion

back of woman looking at icebergs

Over 25 years ago, the blockbuster film Titanic recreated the story of modern history’s deadliest peacetime commercial marine disaster. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you likely know how the ship once called “unsinkable” met its deadly fate. While the Titanic crew made efforts to maneuver around an iceberg they spotted ahead, the ship collided with what they couldn’t see – the dangerous ice that protruded just below the surface.

Twenty years prior to this, Edward T. Hall developed his version of the icy formation and called it the Cultural Iceberg. This model has been used to help everyone from study abroad students to Peace Corps volunteers understand and engage with cultures outside of their own. Above the water’s surface are the numerous observable characteristics of a group that we see with our eyes such as food, dances, arts ,etc. The reality, however, is that these are merely an external manifestation of the deeper and broader components of culture — the complex ideas and deeply-held preferences and priorities known as attitudes and core values that lies deep below the “water line”.

image of the cultural iceberg with visible and observable attributes and behavior above the waterline.

What’s Lies Beneath

These core values are primarily learned ideas of what is good, right, desirable, and acceptable as well as what is bad, wrong, undesirable, and unacceptable. In many cases, different cultural groups share similar core values (such as “honesty”, or “respect”, or “family”), but these are often interpreted differently in different situations and incorporated in unique ways into our daily lives. Core values are passed on from generation to generation by numerous factors which surround us and influence us. These formative factors are powerful forces that guide us and teach us throughout our lives. The things our educators and parents teach us, the opinions and ideas we see and hear in the media, the way our laws and social norms structure our world — all these things (and many more) mold us and our cultural values.

What Reaches the Surface

Ultimately, our Interpretations of our core values become visible to the casual observer in the form of Observable Behaviors, such as the words we use, the way we act, the laws we enact, and the ways we communicate with each other. So, like an iceberg, there are things that we can see and describe easily. But there are also many deeply rooted ideas that we can only understand by analyzing values, studying formative factors, and in many cases, reflecting on our own core values.

How the Cultural Iceberg Guides Us Toward Inclusion

Its likely Hall didn’t intend to join two words that tend to make us a little uncomfortable. But just like the crew of the Titanic, in the professional world we tend to steer clear of understanding our own cultural icebergs. Without knowing how to navigate our own and others’ cultures, we tend to blindly collide with the cultural behaviors and values of others. Without this understanding, we can sabotage even our best efforts to be inclusive. We see this time and time again in examples such as when an ad campaign appropriates a certain culture, or a hiring manager rejects a talented candidate’s interview performance based upon their own narrow cultural lens.

But over the past several years, uncomfortable and courageous conversations about race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and a whole host of cultural differences have only become more common – and they will continue to flourish in the future. This is where an intercultural mindset will become imperative to moving the needle on diversity and inclusion. In a business context, this means understanding the similarities and the differences present on our teams, in our organizations, and across our customer base. It requires understanding our own lenses, and also taking on other lenses to broaden the range of alternatives before us. This way we can foresee where there is likely to be tension, and where there is opportunity for cultural connection synergy.

Diverse and inclusive environments cannot survive without exploring what is above or below the surface of our own and others’ cultural icebergs. Building intercultural competence is a journey that truly never ends, yet we can make substantial progress and notably increase skills and improve outcomes by moving toward the cultural iceberg instead of maneuvering around it.

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