What is Culture? - Culture Article


Picture an iceberg in your mind. Imagine, you are on a ship sailing towards that iceberg, which is off in the distance. What exactly do you feel as it looms ever larger? How much of the iceberg is above water and how much of the iceberg is below water?

There are many different metaphors used to describe culture. My favorite one is the iceberg. I think, it demonstrates so vividly what can happen to us if we believe only in the visible and ignore or underestimate the invisible part. Remember the Titanic?

Just as the captain of a ship has to be aware of the underwater part of the iceberg to avoid disaster, we as visitors to other countries have to be aware of the hidden part of culture to minimize frustrations and misunderstandings.


The hidden part of our culture is that part which we know instinctively because we absorbed it from childhood on. It's handed down to us from generation to generation. We could also say, it's the "thinking" and "feeling" part of culture: habits, assumptions, attitudes, desires, values, tastes, etc.

Now, if we are in a new culture, our customary evaluations and interpretations are likely not to be on target because we see everything through our own cultural glasses. Imagine yourself in a new city trying to get around with a map from your own hometown. It wouldn't take long for you to get lost and completely frustrated! But this is exactly what we do if we interpret everything we encounter in our new environment through our own cultural glasses without taking into account the vast hidden part of the new culture.

When we experience an encounter in the new culture that puzzles us, the most common reaction is to judge it through our own cultural glasses. We might wish that things would be different, more the way we are used to. I want to propose an alternate approach to our initial gut reaction. Instead of immediately and instinctively judging a situation through our own glasses, we might first just pause and notice what is happening and then realize that this is a cultural learning situation. Remember the iceberg metaphor! The new culture becomes your mirror that shows you a hidden part of your own culture.

The anthropologist Edward T. Hall said: "[The] great gift that the members of the human race have for each other is not exotic experiences but an opportunity to achieve awareness of the structure of their own system, which can be accomplished only by interacting with others who do not share that system" (Beyond Culture, pg. 44).

The fact that you reacted is telling you that you have the opportunity to learn something about your own culture. What an opportunity for personal growth and new insight! You can compare two different approaches, that of the new culture and of your own culture. This gives you a choice. Now you can decide what fits best for you or even take the best from both sides. A real win-win situation!

I want to share a personal experience where I gained from both cultures. After living in the United States for a while I became aware that I missed a certain aspect of my Austrian culture. While in Austria I would have taken it for granted, because it is something I am used to from childhood on. Only through exposure to another culture did I become aware of it and really start to appreciate it. I missed "Austrian Gemütlichkeit". I noticed that there was this "non-stop way of life" in the United States where nothing ever seems to come to rest. Somehow all our days seemed equally intense, weekdays and weekends alike without a real break. We never had to plan around store closings. We could do our shopping whenever we wanted to and a lot of times because of a busy week, we left it for the weekend.

On Monday we'd ask: "Where did the weekend go?" My initial frustration with this aspect of American life represents one of my encounters with the "American Iceberg" that made part of my culture more visible to me. I now embrace the American way of doing things while at the same time incorporating my own "Day of Gemütlichkeit" into my week. I plan the week so that on Sunday I avoid running around for last minute shopping or doing errands. I have to fit this in during the week or at the latest on Saturday. Now I still appreciate the convenience of the 24/7 approach in the United States AND I have my Gemütlichkeit.

About the Author: Lisa Velazquez is a certified personal coach specializing in Cultural Transition who helps individuals and families adjust to a new culture through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and presentations on cultural topics to interested groups. For more information visit http://www.lisavel.com and sign up for your free "Three Simple Techniques for a Successful Adjustment to a New Culture" PDF and for the free monthly newsletter "Building Cultural Awareness".