This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Cookie policy         

IDR Institute


Culture is not like an iceberg

By Milton J. Bennett posted 06/05/2013

With all due respect to theoreticians who continue to use the iceberg metaphor to describe culture, I think it's time to retire the image altogether. Here's why.

Most people with any background in intercultural communication theory agree that culture is not a "thing"; it is the process whereby groups of people coordinate meaning and action, yielding both institutional artifacts and patterns of behavior. We feel it is unfair when anthropologists and critical theorists accuse us of essentializing culture. But many interculturalists actually do essentialize culture by using the objective metaphor of an iceberg.

Comparing culture to an iceberg floating in the sea implies that culture is an actual thing. The 10% above the water is really visible to everyone who looks in that direction, and the 90% below the water is both real and dangerous, since it can sink the unwary sojourner.

The metaphor does not in any way imply that culture is a process of coordinating meaning and action - rather, it implies that culture is an entity with mysterious unknown qualities. So, while we ourselves may not romanticize or exotify foreign cultures, we inadvertently support those who do by teaching this metaphor.

This situation is a great example of paradigmatic confusion. We want our students or clients to engage culture in a dynamic way, enabling them to understand complex cultural identity formation and generate mindful intercultural communication.

These are laudable goals drawn from a constructivist paradigm. But then we introduce the topic with a distinctly positivist metaphor - the iceberg. The client is left with a simplistic understanding of culture that cannot support the complex operations vis a vis culture that we subsequently advocate.

In other words, we are shooting ourselves in the foot with this metaphor. Let's find a more appropriate one.

For many years I described culture metaphorically as a river that both carved and was constrained by its banks. While this gets at the "co-ontological" construction of boundary conditions, it doesn't really capture the coordination of meaning idea.

The seemingly related idea of a river (e.g. the Amazon) with tributaries flowing into it strikes me as being another paradigmatically confused metaphor, since it implies that cultural diversity (relativism) disappears into a transcendent unity (positivism). Other ideas?


Please log in to leave a comment (Not registered yet?)

(Please report any problems to


Barb West wrote on 07/05/2013 at 06.29

We've struggled with this metaphor for awhile without coming to any conclusions about what to do about it. Have even had clients demand that we use the iceberg notion - though we tend to use Uluru instead of an iceberg to make it at least locally appropriate. Looking forward to seeing what others are doing about this problem!

Ton van Rheenen wrote on 07/05/2013 at 12.15

I agree we should give this old image his pension ( before it is fully melted anyway). I do not have a replacement, but I think it should contain persons en society somehow, as culture cannot exist without it.
Rorty writes somewhere: "our culture is as much a contingency, as much a result of thousands of small
mutations finding niches (and millions of others finding no niches), as are the orchids and the anthropoids", refering to Darwin. So maybe there is inspiration to find.

Jenny Ebermann wrote on 07/05/2013 at 20.01

Hi there, I think the image that you gave us in our course, of a small river making its bed and coming down a mountain is very suitable! Jenny

Dianne Hofner Saphiere wrote on 07/05/2013 at 20.03

Milton, before Bob Kohls died he shared with me that creating this metaphor, which grew in popularity so rapidly, was one of his great professional regrets. So glad you are putting this helps counteract that reification of culture that's become all too prevalent these days. Thank you.

Dianne Hofner Saphiere wrote on 07/05/2013 at 20.10

Substitutions I have seen still use positivist metaphors: hippo (eyes above water), tree (roots and branches). At least each of these are living things, I suppose...

Hanna Helstelä wrote on 07/05/2013 at 20.17

I am wondering if it is even possible to find a 'metaphor' for such a complex issue like 'culture' ...

Terry Howard wrote on 07/05/2013 at 20.20

Good exchange and yes, I've used the iceberg. What I'd like to get out of this exchange is a reasonable, rather easy to explain replacement, minus too many complex terms and confusing theories.

zoey cooper wrote on 07/05/2013 at 20.47

How about this: "Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass. You don't see it, but somehow it does something." Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Jürgen Henze wrote on 07/05/2013 at 21.46

Milton, thanks for the thought. Actually, I never used iceberg "to explain" culture. I use it as an example that we do not have any accurate form of visualization for culture, more examples have already been cited here, there are many more in the world - none can capture the "reality" which is perceived differently by everyone. Contrary, people in different professions and situations like the iceberg for clarity - but of course there is no clarity. We all know. Best, Juergen

Christian Höferle wrote on 07/05/2013 at 22.30

Over the past few years, my favorite definition for culture became this: "Culture is the lubricant of daily life. A set of shared values & attitudes in a social group. An inherent code of communication."
While this isn't really a metaphor, I think it can be used alongside Hofstede's "software of the mind" concept, which I still find relevant. For my training programs I've modified it a little:
Our body, our physical being is like the hardware of a computer. Culture is its operating system.
If you take a baby from, let's say, China (a Lenovo laptop) and you raise it in Brazil by a Brazilian family with Brazilian cultural values, it will always look like Chinese child and it will grow up to look like a Chinese adult - but it will very likely display only those behavioral preferences that are generally associated with Brazilian culture.

Bruce LaBrack wrote on 07/05/2013 at 23.10

Sometimes metaphors and graphic representations take on a life of their own, far beyond what the originators intended. Once they become iconic and in common use, it is devilishly difficult to go back and correct them. Glad to see this discussion about the 'iceberg' join other reexaminations of similar cultural tropes like the 'curves of adjustment'. It is an excellent idea to periodically revisit our fields foundational 'classics' to determine if they remain valid. As always, the issue is compounded when some trainers uncritically present that are meant to be simple representations as some kind of established reality, which becomes even more misleading if the central tenant is conceptually flawed. Alas, like the 'curves', the iceberg will not easily be replaced with simple, accurate analogies, but collectively we certainly can, and should, try.

Mark Staller wrote on 08/05/2013 at 01.45

All analogies and metaphors break down eventually. I like the iceberg metaphor because it emphasizes that there are observable, conscious elements of culture and "below the surface," often unconscious elements of culture. However, Milton's article reminds me that I need to clearly present this comparison as a "figurative" analogy that compares two very dissimilar "things." I hope that Milton is not serious about "outlawing" the iceberg metaphor. Culture, like love, is a complex phenomenon, so I think we should encourage the development of many different metaphors.

Marco Croci wrote on 08/05/2013 at 09.18

Instead of the "iceberg", I've used a "tree". Beside the tree I show the following quotation:

“True culture is getting rooted and uprooted.
Getting rooted into the depths of one’s native land and its spiritual heritage, but also getting uprooted, that is opening up to the rain, the sun, the fertile contributions of foreign civilizations.”
Leopold Sedar Senghor - First President of Senegal

How can I send you the image of the tree?
Marco Croci (Sietar - Italy)

Pref. Rodolfo A. Fiorini wrote on 08/05/2013 at 09.23

What about an "evolutionary iceberg forming process" metaphor? A global process of evolutionary stationary states of shared mindful knowledge subjected to "melting" and "reconsolidating" according to locally shared new "environmental awareness" profiling.

Milton Bennett wrote on 08/05/2013 at 13.31

Thoughtful comments! I didn't mean to imply that the iceberg metaphor (actually, simile) should be outlawed, since alternatives such as trees and rivers are similarly reified. But at least they are dynamic. To make the iceberg dynamic, one needs to introduce obscure notions such as "sublimation" and "evolutionary stationary states" (thank you Rodolfo!). Rather than shooting it, I was thinking (like Ton) more of a nice retirement party and then obscurity.

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 08/05/2013 at 13.50

This topic is really something to think about. I have been concerned about how my use of the iceberg is interpreted by my students and I agree with Mark Staller’s comment at 01.42 today. I’m not convinced to toss out the iceberg, but rather to try to make better use of it. The iceberg can not only show that it isn’t so easy to see beyond the surface of another culture, but it is also not that easy for us to be conscious of the most important parts of our own culture. We typically operate on autopilot and only either when our tactics don’t work when operating outside or when newcomers mention differences, can we even start to understand some of these aspects of our own culture. It is effective (non-threateningly) questions and discussions with people of diverse culture that spark some hope of comprehending what lies below the surface. I think the iceberg is a good visualization. The problem may be that we need training on how to communicate it in a more effective way. Actually, we as a global society need to learn a better way of communicating in general. There simply aren’t as many right and wrong answers as we have been educated to believe.

Sandy Mitchell wrote on 08/05/2013 at 16.10

While, like many, I've used the metaphor of the iceberg over the years to introduce people to the notion of culture, I totally agree with you, Milton, that it is much too "static" to capture that the process for coordinating meaning and action involves change and development. Any "thing" runs the risk of not being flexible enough, though having a picture in mind helps in communicating the concept. In this, I like to refer to trees. There are roots which generally are not seen. Over time the tree grows and changes - different trees grow to different heights, have different attributes, etc. And how they develop can depend on how much sun or shade they get, how much water, what the soil is like, what other plants or trees are in the area, etc. Trees can be transplanted and either thrive or fail to thrive, or be cross-cut to create something new, or simply give off "seeds" that can develop into other trees. The simple fact of being transplanted isn't the magic ingredient per se, though. Rather, it is how supportive the "environment" is and how "receptive" it is to that environment - whether that is the original environment or a new one. Of course trees aren't conscious beings, but they are adaptable. Maybe not a perfect metaphor, but one with possibilities for describing culture and intercultural development in a more dynamic way.

Ton van Rheenen wrote on 08/05/2013 at 16.52

The problem in finding a good metaphor is that maybe we do not really have a good theoretical understanding of 'culture’. I am reading up on Niklas Luhman again, an eminent constructivist, and he has trouble using the concept because ( as a system thinker) he has trouble separating 'culture' from 'social system'. In his view ( unlike Talcott Parsons) ‘culture’ is not a separate social system. So might it be a functional system of the social system society, like "Law" or "Education"? And what would be the specific issue of this Cultural system, as ‘having or not having money is for “Economy” or “Right – Wrong is for “Law”? Although Luhmann answers this question with a no, some of his followers try to solve the puzzle.
Maybe digging deeper into these type of questions gives us the possibility to come up with some illuminating new metaphors for ‘culture’

Bruno Sales da Silva wrote on 08/05/2013 at 17.58

I'd chose "the wind", cannot see it, but feel it, influenced by many, yet impossible to catch, available to be used yet almost free to decide when ...

Vanessa Shaw wrote on 08/05/2013 at 20.06

Great article. I think it raises some interesting ideas, I like hearing the alternatives - especially the Alka-Seltzer reference, hehehe. As well as this "Culture is the lubricant of daily life. A set of shared values & attitudes in a social group. An inherent code of communication." Its incredibly helpful to have more blog posts for our field to start dialogue and keep the conversation going. I'm enjoying the article just as much as the follow up comments. I look forward to hearing more from IDRI!

Øyvind Dahl wrote on 08/05/2013 at 22.07

I never use the iceberg metaphor. In using it you end up with a static, essentialist, positivist understanding of culture. To me culture is not something a person possesses, but something positioned individuals create in social interactions with other individuals. "Building bridges" is a much better metaphor of culture and (intercultural) communication. The bridge-metaphor is literally "constructivist" and dynamic. Culture is not something we have, but something we do - it's a verb - action, we create it in continuous interaction with others - I prefer this dynamic understanding of culture.

elaine patrao wrote on 08/05/2013 at 22.11

Allowing the learner to arrive at one’s own metaphor works best. The varied understanding on a metaphor is representative of culture. I have experienced ‘coordination of meaning’, with the DIE exercise.

The familiarity of an Iceberg (as a thing, not a metaphor) is low in some cultures. Words may not even exist to describe them and the use of such a metaphor may communicate not just the esoteric attribute of culture but also the ethnocentricity that is associated with it.

Some cultures attribute meanings to things, all things. Some may attribute them as relativist others as empiricist. In that context, using the iceberg as a paradigm may lead to an interesting reactions on the ability to engage with culture. A skilled facilitator (and a theorist) may be able to engage learners to transcend the positive - negative continuum of a metaphor and use that confusion as a springboard to engage in the constant coordination of meaning and action.

On a lighter note, my personal least favorite metaphor is the Onion. I wonder whether I communicate my own gender association and it comes across as an effortless, frivolous association - yes an onion, ladies look no further for a metamorphic metaphor!

Lucia Ann McSpadden wrote on 08/05/2013 at 22.20

The simile (thanks, Milton) of the tree as expressed in some of these comments is stimulating. I wrote a comment yesterday but don't see it in the line-up, so to repeat one thought I expressed. We as anthropologists are immersed in concepts of culture. The one I like the best is "All the learned and shared lifeways of a people." Not a metaphor or simile but does briefly encapsulate the dynamic, fluid and process nature of cultural learning. This discussion has sparked my thinking about how I use the iceberg model and how I might improve. In the work I do with clergy and congregations the iceberg consistently remains as a challenging awareness of the hidden nature of culture, especially to the persons themselves.

Luca Fornari wrote on 09/05/2013 at 10.11

Of course, as someone wrote, the point is not "what is a good metaphor for culture?" but "what metaphor can we use to elicit the process of coordinating meaning?".

Very interesting Øyvind's idea of proposing a verb, an action, instead of an noun.

Well, I have no ideas on that point, but If it didn't sound too spooky I was thinking of proposing, the Dark Matter (it does recall the Star War's Dark Forces, doesn't it?)

- You can infer it's presence only by observing the behavior of the universe

- it is regulating the ongoing relationship between objects, bodies

- It exists only as human theoretical construction, it is not "a thing", at least for the moment.

Of course if the iceberg it's self might not be well know by all learners, Dark Matter is even less present in common human experience.

Joseph Kearns wrote on 09/05/2013 at 11.22

As many of you will have come from language backgrounds you will probably be aware of the concept that most language is in fact made up of metaphors - see Guy Deutscher's wonderful book "The Unfolding of Language" Chapt 4. So when we are trying to explain concepts of the mind we have no choice but to use metaphors – we are trying to get an idea from one mind into another, the whole reason for language in the first place.
As others have said, all metaphors are limited and breakdown eventually. The iceberg is useful, particularly when introducing the topic of culture to those new to the concept, in explaining the idea that what you see when you encounter a new culture is only a tiny part of the whole. I know this has broken down already; there is no "whole", but bear with me.
When we are trying to get a group of people to grasp the complex ideas we are trying to get across, even if they already have their own culture, we must use metaphors to help them undersatnd– and all we can ever do is help. The greatest thrill of all as a trainer/teacher is when the student moves beyond the metaphors and actually internalises the ideas. Rather like Jake Blues in the Blues Brothers film when he is standing at the back of the church and the sunbeam shines on him, he says "I have seen the light!".
Right there I have used a simile and a (US) cultural example :)
See it here if you don't know the movie

Richard Hill wrote on 09/05/2013 at 13.13

There's another problem with the iceberg analogy. Use it with a roomful of sub-Saharan Africans and they won't know what you're talking about.

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 09/05/2013 at 13.51

Richard's recent point is interesting, but if you show a decent picture of an iceberg (or draw one) and explain the metaphor, I think anyone could understand something about it. I'm Canadain, but I've never seen an actual iceberg. The first time I saw a picture that shows that the majority of the structure is below the surface, I got the concept. I don't think I needed to relate it to how ice cubes behave in a glass. As a matter of fact, I only just thought of that relationship much more recently than I care to admit.

George Simons wrote on 09/05/2013 at 18.13

Iceberg, tree, or river, the point is, that we are dealing with metaphors, and in the case of culture, the more dynamic and flexible the metaphors we choose, it seems to me the closer they is to what we're trying to work with. We need multiple metaphors, sobered by the horrible realization that like the wise men of Hindustan feeling up the pachyderm, we wind up being partly right but mostly wrong, mostly wrong in the sense that the whole a reality cannot be comprehended in a single image.

While I find swimming in the river more invigorating, I occasionally refer to the iceberg, not for how it contains and places various aspects of culture, but to raise the question: “What do we know about icebergs that the Titanic should have paid attention to?” The answer is obvious: “9/10 of the beast lies below the waterline.” The moral? When you can't see and you don't know how to look for what's going on in the given culture context and in the individual rep of that culture you are dealing with, approach with care. Thinking that what you see is all there is can quickly rip a hole below your waterline and send you to Davy Jones’ locker.

The issue of course is less about elephants, and icebergs, but about a mentality of reification that to easily permeates academia and marketing and, unfortunately, a lot of our intercultural theories and practices. Of the making of labels (and sticking them to others or beating others about the head with them), there is no end.

Yet we need images and imagination to help us tell each other not necessarily what things are, but what they are "like." The menu is not the meal, but I do vote for those Japanese restaurants with plastic model vittles in the window. They give me a better, though not exact, sense of what I'm going to get served than reading Motsunabe or Shabu-Shabu off a card.

Finally, sitting or dancing in meditation may be a more useful approach to getting perspective on the social constructions we deem to be real and try to sell to each other. The monks, dervishes and the mystics have something going for them, too.

Lucia Ann McSpadden wrote on 09/05/2013 at 20.47

Tongans I work with have come up with reef island and/or coral reef for their connection to the iceberg metaphor. Once the underlying concept to which the iceberg points is understood, folks easily engage with their own, context-relevant, metaphor. Reification is the issue more than the specific metaphor. The process fascinates. This conversation is truly stimulating.

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 09/05/2013 at 20.57

It has been mentioned more than once that the iceberg is not dynamic enough, but this is not how I see it. Granted, it eventually melt completely into the ocean, but in doing so, it isn't gone. It has simply changed form. During the process of melting, so many things happen, it breaks apart and suddenly deeply hidden sections (sections that perhaps if it wasn't a thing, it would not have known about) are revealed. Check out the powerful force that is an iceberg.

Milton Bennett wrote on 10/05/2013 at 11.36

True, all language is metaphorical (Lakoff & Johnson), and as such it has the power to evoke embodied meaning. So what kind of meaning do we want to evoke with our cultural similes? The inherent assumption in my blog was that "iceberg" evokes feelings of mystery and danger. While those feelings are familiar and perhaps motivational, I don't think they lead us to a constructivist understanding of culture as a dynamic process in which we can participate more intentionally. Trees, rivers, and maybe even dark matter seem to catch the "co-structural coupling" (Maturana & Varela) of cultures as dynamic systems a little more clearly than the iceberg – but I wonder if they generally evoke a feeling of participation in that process.

I'm flirting with hive mind allusions, like ants organizing to raid a picnic, but I suspect our clients may not recognize themselves engaging in similar group behavior.

Anyway, a very interesting conversation that serves us all by making our use of metaphor more intentional!

Matthieu Kollig wrote on 10/05/2013 at 12.52

Thank you for inspiring this fruitful discussion! I like the metaphor of a game with no written rules. Everyone has to deduct the rules and they can change if enough gamers decide to do so.

When I use the iceberg model, I highlight the idea of visible / invisible culture, because I think that is the essential message. And I comment on the limits of the metaphor (10/90 percent > that's not true with culture / cultures don't necessarily clash below the surface).

Øyvind Dahl wrote on 10/05/2013 at 12.58

"Building bridges" is my metaphor. We do cultures together. It's very dynamic.

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 10/05/2013 at 16.18

I’d like to propose another conversation, if it interests you Milton, would it be possible for you to start a new thread? One other thing I’m struggling with is that, although I’m hopeful that in the long term, my students will find themselves being a bit more critical of their own “molding” behavior, in which they apply conformity pressure (I’ve seen it done by both hosts and newcomers—newcomers seem to do it quite liberally to each other). Sometimes, I feel that in the short term, talk of the conformity pressure phenomenon almost gives them license to do it more; It’s natural to do it, so they overdo it which really hurts relationships. Has anyone else seen this? Is this a stage they need to go through? I suppose I’ve been there and I still encounter people who try to conform me. Fortunately, it doesn’t bother me. It might work someday. :D

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 10/05/2013 at 16.22

hmmm... somehow, this message I posted earlier didn't make it to the list.. thankfully, I was able to retrieve it by hitting the backarrow on my browser a few time :D .

When I mentioned my concern about how my students might interpret the iceberg earlier, it was just as Milton recently mentioned. Some might see it as a warning of danger, and it discourages them from engaging in communication with diverse others. The problem is, if you don’t make them aware of the likelihood that misunderstanding will occur, and may even require extra communication to unravel, they will assume (as I’ve even done myself once or twice) that the other person is treating them unfairly and possibly write it off as prejudice. In effect, they will avoid communicating with the person or even all people in that person’s cultural group. I have had a range of adult students from immigrants, sojourners and locals (of which I am not culturally one). Some of my students seem to interpret the iceberg in a way that approaches my intention, but others (whether for linguistic challenges or pre-disposition reasons) take it as a warning of eminent danger. I haven’t been convinced that I’d be any further ahead with the tree, wind or rivers. The ants are fine with me, but some city friends will be more horrified by that then they are by the iceberg.

marianna bolognesi wrote on 10/05/2013 at 16.56

Metaphors are perspectives that highlight specific properties of a concept. Given a topic, or a target concept, such as "culture", a metaphor is another concept (source), which is generally more concrete and easy, and helps us to interpret "culture", by tranferring attributes from the source to the target.

Thus, there isn't just one good metaphor for "culture", but there are many, depending on the aspects of the content of "culture" that we want to stress.

Saying that a culture is an iceberg, we stress the fact that only little can be seen as a first impact, while a lot of stuff remains latent, or partially hidden, to the external superficial viewer. I'd say it works pretty well, for the purpose. Surely, there are many other concepts that are good candidates to be used as metaphors for "culture", and thus highlight other properties of the concept "culture".

Ton van Rheenen wrote on 11/05/2013 at 06.55

I ‘ve been thinking about the suggestions you all make and the reason why most of them are insprired by nature. I cannot find a satisfactory explanation so maybe one of you can has one ideas about it?
Because I think the metaphor should include people, I came up with the old-fasioned marketplace, where people meet and are trying to do deals. On the one hand they share meaning, otherwise negotiations could not take place. On the onther hand they create meaning when buyer and seller agree on a price. At the same time lots of different, unshared meanings abound: the difference of meaning the object has for the buyer and seller, does the seller feel any loss by selling his posession?
While writing this I see it is probably an extension of the bridge-building metaphor. It certainly fits with the suggestion of Rorty: if the deal is closed a small mutation has find its niche)

George Simons wrote on 11/05/2013 at 15.04

Interesting comment, Ton,

Without denying what can be learned from the bridge metaphor, I believe that having natural metaphors, the river, the tree, the lily pond, provides a very specific functional understanding of culture. Namely it represents the fact that the creation and acquisition of culture is rooted in a natural process of adaptation to one's environment and diversity in culture comes from diversity of environments and the interaction of their flora and fauna.

As far as we can tell from current research in genetics, biology and cognitive science, the transmission of genetic material may even be involved at some level in the transmission of culture. Biological marking has always been a dangerous business as we all know, but how nature works and what we make of it can be two quite different things.

Certainly the transmission of discourse and the work of memes has a lot to do with the shaping of cultural ecology. However, as we mine and adapt nature for our uses, culture also becomes a social creation. As, alas, we use natural products to dominate each other, even destroy each other, so too we create cultures, propaganda and other social tools to even go to war to construct the world the way WE want it. There may be deadly memes just as there are useful and entertaining ones. We now talk about things on the internet that "go viral" (another natural metaphor), but hasn't cultural "gone viral" throughout our history with it? Maybe we should research how culture goes viral...

Is it not too much to think that perhaps, as the ecosystem deteriorates and at the same time wreaks its revenge in violent weather, dysfunctional habitats and new forms of disease, so too the manufacture of certain deadly forms of culture are having their payback.

Marcia Carteret wrote on 11/05/2013 at 18.17

Coming to this discussion rather late, I have a metaphor that does not come from the natural world, but still felt compelling to me when it first struck me. I stood in a shop just after giving a presentation on cross-cultural communication to a group of health care professionals looking at a rubix cube, then picking it up and working the mechanism that allows the puzzle-minded to try to achieve alignment - of colors - but the more I worked the puzzle the more I thought about the invisible mechanism internal to the cube. Culture is like this somehow. It was a gut feeling, hard to put into words. I've thought about it so often since that day. For me it suggested something the iceberg does not, nor the river, the tree...Something more like the brain? And most of all, there is an urge to achieve common understanding, to align perceptions, to understand, share and netogiate meaning - to solve the puzzle of our universal problems of existence (Hofstede's dimensions instead of the colors in the puzzle I held in my hand that day). I have always wanted to tell Milton this and wondered if he'd say it was crazy. :)

Patrick Boylan wrote on 11/05/2013 at 19.14

Milton is of course right when he says culture is not an iceberg, but too drastic when he calls for eliminating its use as a metaphor or simile.

For culture IS an iceberg (“metaphorically” speaking). Or, if we want to use a more cautious “simile”, we can say that culture is, at least, LIKE an iceberg. Because there is more to it than what you see immediately on the surface.

In the same way I can say that the Fellini film “8 1/2” was an iceberg for me (metaphor). Or at least it was "like an iceberg" (simile) because what I saw on the surface, on screen, was just a confused director trying to get his act together - nothing exceptional. But what I then collided with, as I got into the film, was something - beyond words - that blew me away. Just like getting beneath the surface of a new culture does.

That's an important point to make to managers who have “seen” China for two weeks and think they “know” Chinese culture. We have to warn them that collisions await them. So let's keep the iceberg metaphor (phrasing it as a simile, if we want to be cautious). For it clarifies one important aspect of culture, as many contributors to this blog have pointed out. Of course we must make it clear that it is just one aspect and that culture in itself is something else - Milton is right about that.

So this raises the question: just what IS culture, then? What metaphor (or simile) can evoke it?

Answering those questions would require writing a paper, while blogs permit only sound bites. If you want to read my papers on the subject, see:

As for my sound bite response: Culture? It's an act of the will. It's a "will to be" (in a certain way), communally shared. For it is not enough for a Western manager in Bejing, whose goal is to acculturate to Chinese mores, to learn to think differently: he has to want to “be” differently. Otherwise he just goes through the motions. And remains on the outside, looking in.

One metaphor to represent culture, so defined, is “stance”. A person's “stance” is more than his/her posture, it's how they position themselves towards events, their commitment. Which is usually embodied in their bearing. An example: a couple gets married, thinking they know each other because of all their long conversations together. But only after living together and seeing the stances (physical and moral posture) that the other person takes on this and that occasion, does it become clear what that person is really all about. Only then does that person's “will” - his or her “will to be” in a certain way - emerge clearly, although remaining beyond words.

Same with cultures. Cultures are existential stances, communally shared. They are the motor of the "process of coordinating meaning and action within the community" (Bennett), using (post-hoc created) "values and attitudes and language forms" (Höferle) to justify those stances. But the stances are what comes first.

George Simons wrote on 12/05/2013 at 05.13

Brenda I. Garcìa Portillo wrote on 13/05/2013 at 20.41

We, like most of you already mentioned, also used the iceberg metaphor, but we also use the onion metaphor and some others. However, in class we discuss in more detail the dinamics of culture so the students/clients can have a better understanding of it. I think the iceberg metaphor is a good start for a deeper discussion about culture. There is also a very good video on you tube (wich I really like) with a more "dynamic" explanation:
DiversityDNA: your unique cultural DNA profile

Brenda García

Michelle McCormack wrote on 13/05/2013 at 20.58

I really enjoyed reading this thread.Thank you Øyvind Dahl (8/5 22:07), for bringing up the importance of social interactions and culture as a verb. I think the danger with the iceberg model exists still with trees or hipos, it is objectifying culture. I still think it has valuable use, especially when presenting the ideas to people who are in the preliminary stages of exploring and understanding culture, that Culture encompasses much more than you can see, much more than advertised in travel books. As mentioned, it is difficult to come up with a metaphor for something that exists in the invisible space of an interaction. How can we display and explain culture as being constructed through the meaning taken out of an interaction between people (Strauss and Quinn, 1997)? Our own internalized culture, as it overlaps within society(ies) exists in our experience and interpretation of events and relations with the people around us. I like the bridge model, it seems to get at the idea of interconnectedness rather than culture standing on its own.

Ton van Rheenen wrote on 14/05/2013 at 05.56

Patrick, it seems to me that metaphores that reduce culture to the "I", like you seem to do, are, although including people, pretty much confusing. Seeing culture as "an act of will" makes culture a domain of the personal instead of the social.

Mike Packevicz wrote on 14/05/2013 at 14.39

I find Clifford Gertz' explanation of culture to be very helpful, even if it is 40 years old:
"The concept of culture I essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 5). In other words, as we study culture(s) we are not looking to say "As I stand outside, I can see this is the 10%, and that is the 90% you should watch out for." Rather, we are looking for the significance given to behaviors by the actors themselves.

Denise Hummel wrote on 15/05/2013 at 17.08

While the analogy of an iceberg is far from perfect, in an international business setting it effectively highlights the fact that understanding etiquette and protocol only scratches the surface of the cultural knowledge necessary to drive revenue and reduce cost and risk when operating in a foreign culture. I think the river analogy has merit too, but for a different value proposition.

Patrick Boylan wrote on 16/05/2013 at 00.06

Ton, like many interculturalists, seems to find my definition of culture strange (or inaccurate or, as George suggested, partial). He wrote: “Seeing culture as "an act of will" makes culture a domain of the personal instead of the social”, doesn't it?

Well, not necessarily, Ton. Because cultures are “acts of the will” COMMUNALLY SHARED. Some of our “acts of will” are personal, that's true: we have our own idiosyncratic ways (our personal culture). But mainly we act in ways that are shared by the people in the various communities we belong to. Our will is communal, to a large extent.

Autistic children, on the other hand, have MOSTLY personal will and little communal will. They live withdrawn within their own private worlds. Some never even learn to speak the language used around them and participate only minimally in the surrounding culture. Note that they are NOT mentally retarded. They can be quite intelligent. They simply do not “will” to be part of the environment. And thus they never learn to share their inner world with others – which is what we learn to do in [...]

Ulrich Zeutschel wrote on 16/05/2013 at 00.33

Milton, thank you very much for initiating this fruitful discussion! The multitude of posted comments on the use of metaphors as well as the number of proposed metaphors seems to imply that a simile is indeed helpful in the mediation of the meaning of culture. So I would like to propose the simile of an emergent script in an improvised play (there is probably a more technical term for that kind of theatrical format): People interact on the basis of their trained and previously played scripts, and they have the choice of sticking to their learnt roles, or to "switch off the auto-pilot" (as Elisabeth Plum and co-authors put it in their 2008 publication on Cultural Intelligence, and to try out new roles in the process of co-creating meaning and interacting in goal-directed ways. Needless to say that the newly developed script will only be of limited direct transferability in different contexts in the future, but it will add to the wealth and flexibility of potential interpretation/orientation patterns of those involved.

Patrick Boylan wrote on 16/05/2013 at 01.53

My response (above) was cut short. I now see there's a limit to length.

Probably a good idea – blogs are for sound bytes, not complete explanations.

Still, if you would like to see the rest of what I was saying (I do get down to business and talk about intercultural training!), it's here:

Katherine King wrote on 17/05/2013 at 06.14

How about a wave. There is the essential commonality of water, but characteristics such as shape, style, size, quality and length are distinct in each location. They change with the weather whose elements can be felt at times, but only understood fully by those with academic backgrounds or repetitive experience. Neither on its own will result in mastery. Currents can be deadly or useful. A multitude of elements change the experience hourly, daily and even long term. There are many ways to spin it.

"Culture is like a wave. Resist it and it will knock you over, dive straight into it and you will come out the other side." - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Katherine King wrote on 17/05/2013 at 06.19

Having said that, I believe as translators of our field, the iceberg as a starting point is more appropriate for debutants.

George Simons wrote on 17/05/2013 at 08.23

Today I received this quotation which I think speaks to our ultimate human connectedness as well as our cultural diversity, in a sense adding to some of the metaphors we have shared here.

"Our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves ... But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean's bottom. "

William James, psychologist and philosopher (1842-1910)

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 17/05/2013 at 10.55

I might have to use that William James quote. The retentive copyeditor in me needs to insert a couple of words though.

"Our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves [and needles] ... But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean's bottom."

Thanks for your post.

Marie-Therese Claes wrote on 19/05/2013 at 15.54

Interesting discussion. But maybe the issue is not so much the tools we use (metaphores, models, frameworks) but what we do with tyhem, how we use them. A tool is lakie a hammer: you can build a house with it, but you can also kill someone with it. So, I would say, let's use the tools that we like, whatever they are, but let's be aware of what we are doing with them.

Marie-Therese Claes wrote on 19/05/2013 at 15.59

Another idea that I wanted to share with you is about the definition of culture. The more I work with this, the more I am convinced that culture is actually nothing more than the solutions we develop for survival of our group, be they hygiene,food, social structure, beliefs... For everything we do, there must have been a good reason in the past, but most of the time we don't know any more what this reason was. We still do things that way though, and we are convinced it is the right way. However, how many 'why' questions can we answer?

Adriana Medina-Lopez-Portillo wrote on 20/05/2013 at 20.27

The iceberg metaphore works very well for me to get the discussion going. An iceberg is floting in water, and there are other icebergs floating about. The water is a space shared by the icebergs and it shapes and reshapes them. An iceberg is not a static block of ice, if we don't want for it to be.

Ton van Rheenen wrote on 21/05/2013 at 06.42

Maria-Therese, is there any water the icebergs float in? I.e what is 'outside culture'?
And this is part of the problem of the iceberg metaphor: the suggestion that we can look to it from an outside perspective. Lookig to another iceberg is always taking place from inside my iceberg. So where is the water?

Marie-Therese Claes wrote on 21/05/2013 at 09.00

Hello Tom,
I suppose the outside perspective is mine. I look at things and perceive them from my perspective, my background, my culture. CC competence is then being able to change perspectives, and see things from the others' perspective as well, change shoes.

Bert Vercamer wrote on 24/05/2013 at 18.26

When using a metaphor (any metaphor - onion, tree, iceberg, software of the mind), I often take a sidestep and explain how I see a metaphor with the following story: A map is by definition an incorrect representation of a city, but it's a 'damn handy' one when you enter a new city. Similar to you not continuing to see a city through the restriction of a map - hopefully you get to know your way around soon enough - a metaphor or model just exists to ensure you get yourself acquainted with the new concept. The iceberg, the onion, the tree, the river, are by definition incorrect representations of the wildly complex concept of culture, but they are 'damn handy' to get introduced to the topic. You use them as introduction and you quickly - hopefully - move on from there.

I therefore second what Marie-Therese says: "But maybe the issue is not so much the tools we use (metaphores, models, frameworks) but what we do with tyhem, how we use them. A tool is lakie a hammer: you can build a house with it, but you can also kill someone with it. So, I would say, let's use the tools that we [...]

Øyvind Dahl wrote on 25/05/2013 at 21.02

Michelle is the only one who has commented upon my bridge metaphor. I do not say that culture is a bridge, that would objectify the concept of culture, just like the iceberg. I say that we construct culture in human meetings, culture is action, closely connected to communication. Communication and culture represent to sides of the coin, to use another metaphor. When we communicate with others we create culture. It is dynamic action, a verb. I think this is what Milton means when he says that the image of the iceberg should retire: "Most people with any background in intercultural communication theory agree that culture is not a "thing"; it is the process whereby groups of people coordinate meaning and action." Building bridges means that the partners from different bridgeheads construct something together. The action is culture, and this action never ends, we live with it, by bringing different bricks to the construction according to position and situation of the human enconter. This image also points to a forgotten dimension of culture: POWER. The different bridgebuilders represent [...]

Terry Howard wrote on 25/05/2013 at 21.40

After reading all these comments, my plan is to paste them into a Word file then send it out to participants as a homework assignment prior to my next culture session, then, during the class, facilitate a discussion on what they learned from what they read and how they'd define culture individually.

Patrick Boylan wrote on 27/05/2013 at 12.34

I agree with Marie-Therese: a metaphor is only worth what you can do with it. So let's test three of them.

(1.) Culture is an iceberg. This metaphor is useful for remembering that, as much as you see of a host culture, collisions lie ahead. But that's all.

(2.) Marcia Carteret's metaphor: culture is a rubix cube. A great metaphor, not for culture, but for “cultural identity”: our “identity” is what holds together all the bits and pieces of our multiple cultural selves, just like the “magic force” in a rubix cube holds together the variously colored chips. This helps us see contrasting loyalties not as a problem but a strength, as I wrote in a paper on European Cultural Identity:

(3.) My metaphor: culture is a “stance”, a “will to be” in a certain way. This is useful in reminding us that we have to get our clients not just to think differently but to feel and want differently. This makes them much more effective cross-cultural communicators.

Wenhui Jiang wrote on 10/06/2013 at 00.41

Marie-Therese's comment that "a metaphor is only worth what you can do with it" impresses me as well. From my own teaching exprience with Chinese college students mainly aged 20-24 of intercultural communication courses in China, the metaphor of ICEBERGE really helps them understand better what cultures can be interpreted as different shared life-patterns of given groups and motivate them in exploring cross-cultural comparison...I would like to say "the metaphors of a concept/term make senses when they fit the contexts where you use them to communicate with others. The metaphor of ICEBERGE serves well to the beginners of cultural studies or an outsider of a culture. Moreover, from my own journey of Intercultural Communication practice and studies for years, I have a strong resonance with Mr. Bennett's suggestion of "RIVER" as an alternative metaphorizing the essence of what culture is.
Different metaphors function different for different purposes in communication,which serve as a bridge either cognitive, interpretive or affective. For example, still from a perspective of [...]

Wenhui Jiang wrote on 10/06/2013 at 00.46

For example, one metaphor I would like to suggest that, still from a perspective of intercultural communication, to an individual, culture is his/her living environment/air for his/her social survival, adaptation or/and development among a given group of their shared life style.

Cheers for such a great sharing of all the thoughts in depth.

Susan Holm wrote on 31/07/2013 at 10.23

Culture - is like the air we breathe in and out, like the atmosphere that we live in. It surrounds us and yet we move freely through it. We can make generalizations about it, especially as it relates to a geographical area (hot,cold, dry, mild) and yet it is very complex in its specific makeup at any time and place. It may seem very stable but is always in flux and may change dramatically over thousands of years. Trying to contain it is tricky and explosive. We are unconscious of its presence but could not exist without it. Unfortunately it is much easier to illustrate an iceberg!

Juliana Roth wrote on 18/02/2014 at 12.13

Milton, thank you for touching upon this sensitive issue. I am sorry to join the diskussion so late, nevertheless I have the privilege to read so many comments.
For me the iceberg metaphor is part of the history of the intercultural field, so we teach it to students in this context. It proves good for beginners, especially with the distinction visible - nonvisible. The idea connects nicely with the view on culture during globalization - "culture" nowadays has retreated almost exclusively to the invisible. Soon after that I introduce the "invisible backpack" metaphor which in my view suits today's modern lifestyles of urbanized individuals better - culture as a knowledge reservoir, managed by the individual and used individually depending on the context of interaction. Outside the academic world, in adult education my work with the iceberg metaphor takes somewhat longer, but is also at some point replaced with the "invisible backpack".

And I never forget to mention that the "iceberg" proves useful for people that are in the first two phases of Milton's model - the newly arrived [...]

Rachel Ferlatte Kuisma wrote on 20/02/2014 at 18.40

Patrick said we should teach the client "not just to think differently but to feel and want differently". I'm satisfied if they just start rethinking, even a little bit. I got fabulous feedback last time I lectured on Intercultural Communications, after the final hour of 9 hours with a group over a 2 month period, one student asked when I would return. I said this was the last planned session I would give the group, and when I questioned her obvious disappointment, she said "I like your style. You make me think. You make me think about what I think." Can we ask for anything more?

Paul Wesendonk wrote on 04/08/2014 at 19.13

I've always thought that the iceberg is - while not really accurate - still a useful tool we have for the understanding of foreign cultures at the moment. As with every model it can't represent all aspects of culture, nor does it want to. It does however convey the invisible foundation of behaviours very well that can not be seen, but (when diving) can be found out. This is different to the tree, or the crocodile or hippo which will either attack when trying to find out what's under water, or there is no way of finding out, because the roots of the tree are under ground and can only be viewed when they are destroyed.
The iceberg combined with Hofstede's Onion and the "Cultural Glasses" were very helpful for me as an exchange student in High School in the USA and even in my ERASMUS semester in Iceland.

Renata Bohomoletz wrote on 21/02/2015 at 03.25

It makes me think about Edward T. Hall. He didn't have any of this view, nor even about no limits on cultural concept, but in my mind (without his intention), he made me think about the huge cultural background, and you helped here to translate it. Thanks! And congrats for the nice blog.
Sorry if I'm late
Renata Bohomoletz

IDR Institute
Cookie policy
Developed by Head&Hands