June 1, 2024

See life through fresh eyes with the Cultural Iceberg.

About 15 years ago, I discovered The Cultural Iceberg at a teacher training program. The iceberg left me speechless. So simple. Yet, so profound. Ever since then, I’ve been sharing this theory with students, coaching clients, journalists and other storytellers.

And everyone usually loves it! The most common reaction is, “Why have I never heard of this before?!”

Once you see this iceberg, it’s impossible to unsee it. This is good news, because this iceberg is a powerful tool for creating powerful connections in our lives, stories and relationships.

An iceberg is a giant mountain of floating ice. Icebergs are so massive that they can make a cruise ship look like a toy boat. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – because most of the iceberg is unseen.

The largest part of every iceberg is hidden deep in the ocean, underneath the waterline. Running into an iceberg can be deadly. For example, we all know the story of the Titanic, the world’s most famous shipwreck.

This is the problem with deep culture: Unless we realize it’s there, we will misjudge what’s going on around us. In fact, we might even be completely clueless to what’s happening right in front of our eyes.

Now, when I’m annoyed with someone, or feeling insecure about being “the only one,” I stop, take a breath, and reflect. Very often the problem is surface culture, the optics of me looking different from others. Maybe I’m the oldest person in the room, or the only Asian. Or, the only one wearing brown shoes.

An Internet search will turn up many articles and charts about this profoundly useful chunk of frozen water. Here is my version of The Cultural Iceberg. It’s inspired by what I found online, and includes some new details of my own:

How The Cultural Iceberg works

This iconic theory has three parts: surface culture, deep culture, and where they meet at the waterline.

Surface culture is instantly visible. We can see and observe the ways different cultures celebrate with fun stuff like food, festivals, fashion, music, art and dance. We also have plenty of stories about immigrant kids who were bullied in school because their moms packed them “stinky” leftovers for lunch.

Then, there’s the waterline. Sometimes, deep culture breaks through to the surface. Sometimes, surface culture screams out for us dive down for a closer look.

Deep culture hides just below the waterline. It holds our group’s core beliefs, values and views. These are the deep attitudes that holds us together – and, divides us from each other.


What is “culture”

The Oxford dictionary defines “culture” as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” When most people use the phrase, “my culture,” they’re usually talking about the community that defines them by their country of origin.

But every single one of us belongs to many, many different cultures. These groups are shaped by gender, race, ethnicity, age, health, geography, and education level.

Every hobby, sport, sports team and music group reflects a specific culture.

Our jobs, professions and workplaces reflect ndistinct cultures, too. How much money do you have? Income level creates lifestyle, and lifestyle reflects culture. 


And, a little Cultural Iceberg history

The inventor of this iconic theory is cultural anthropologist and author Edward T. Hall. He had a passion for research nonverbal communication. He was especially interested in exploring why people from different groups and cultures had trouble understanding and connect with each other. Hall died in 2009 at the age of 95.

Hall was a white man who grew up in Santa Fe, N.M. Back in the 1930s, he worked on Indian reservations. During World War II, he led a Black regiment that served in Europe and the Philippines. Later, Hall taught at Northwestern University, did more research and wrote more books. He first introduced his iconic theory in “Beyond Culture,” a book about his research that was published in 1976.

To read more about Hall, check out his obituary, which ran in The New York Times.  


How to use the Cultural Iceberg

Once the iceberg is invited into a space, it offers a shared context for analyzing problems, talking about our stories, and shaping projects.  Here are some of the things that come up in conversations:

  • “Let’s use some surface culture visuals, to pull in our audience.”
  • “It sounds like you’re talking about deep culture.”
  • “What should we introduce first, the deep or surface issues?
  • “But we have to consider what’s going on at the waterline.”