3. What is Culture?

In this lesson we will examine the concept of culture, and see some practical examples of how cultural differences can influence verbal communication.

Culture and the “Iceberg” Model

(To read along click here.)

Edward T. Hall’s “iceberg” model of culture makes the distinction between the 10% external (surface) culture—which is visible to others—and the 90% internal (deep) culture, which can only be seen by others with time and effort.

External culture is:

  • explicitly learned
  • conscious
  • easily changeable
  • objective knowledge

These aspects of culture include behaviours, traditions, and customs; they are easily observable with sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound.

Internal culture is the 90% of the iceberg which is below the surface of the water. It is:

  • implicitly learned
  • unconscious
  • difficult to change
  • subjective knowledge

These aspects of culture include core values, priorities, beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and perceptions; they are difficult to observe.

Initially, when two people from different cultures come together, they can only see above the surface. But if our basic cultural values differ underneath the surface, that’s when misunderstandings can happen.

In her book called The (Brown) Elephant In The Room, Gurwinder Gill points out that culture is unique to each person. Diversity within diversity. In other words, exceptions can and do apply.

Even seeing examples from a few individuals shows how different ‘normal’ behaviour can be from place to place. Culturally competent people regard such differences as something which can enrich life, and offer opportunities to learn.

This next self-reflection exercise will encourage you to start thinking about the 10% of the “iceberg” that can be seen above the surface of the water. Consider your answers from your own personal perspective on Canadian culture.


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