Wanted: A 21st century metaphor to explain culture

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 Geert Hofstede‘s “software of the mind” concept, which I still find relevant.

For my training programs I’ve modified Hofstede a little bit: 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 a Chinese child and it will grow up to look like a Chinese adult – but it will very likely speak Brazilian Portuguese and it will display mainly those behavioral preferences that are generally associated with Brazilian culture.

icebergMany professionals in the intercultural field also are heavy users of the Iceberg model – including me (as you can see by the slide on the left). According to that metaphor culture is a “thing” with visible and invisible parts. While this model can be helpful in training programs for creating a basic understanding of the complexity of culture, it is also a metaphor with significant flaws. Milton J. Bennett recently published a blog post in which he asks interculturalists to retire the iceberg altogether.

Bennett thinks that we are doing our profession a disservice: “The client is left with a simplistic understanding of culture that cannot support the complex operations vis-à-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.” Bennett certainly raises a valid point here. I am, however, not quite ready to completely dismiss the iceberg. It can be a good conversation starter and needs to be followed up with additional explanatory model to put it into perspective.

CultureAlkaSeltzerGenerally, finding better metaphors should be in every interculturalist’s interest, though. There are several other examples out there, like Bennett’s own idea of a river that both carved and was constrained by its banks. One of my favorite analogies is a quote from author Hans Magnus Enzensberger (a fellow Bavarian!) who also tried to grasp the intangible nature of culture.

Other approaches work with trees, hippos, onions, the wind, and more. I encourage you to read through the comment section below Bennett’s blog post. Next: Come up with your ideas and post them as a comment here on this page. I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this topic.

Get creative!


ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!



10 thoughts on “Wanted: A 21st century metaphor to explain culture

  1. Kultur ist eine soziale mutierenden Virus in einer Petrischale der Massenmedien und gefüttert mit Mund-zu-Mund, Anspielungen und Hörensagen.

  2. What a Challenge ! Like it ! I personally find the Iceberg model good enough, but let’s try to be creative:
    Culture is like a mayonnaise: Egg yolks, made with 50% of water and oil would not naturally mix together, but by slowly whisking the oil into the egg yolks, the two liquids form a stable emulsion that won’t separate. Droplets of water become evenly dispersed within the oil thanks to lecithin present in egg yolks that is soluble in both liquids. In other words, what you see is not what it is in reality. Using a microscope you can see millions of drops of water from egg yolks in an homogeneous oil phase. A second metaphor could be “lecithin” is to mayonnaise what laws and rules are to culture : they bind individuals together:

  3. Ann, your analogy made me think of “binders”–used in chemical engineering or in sausage-making. In the latter, you need something to hold the various meat particles and spices together, namely, fat. (My apologies to the squeamish or vegetarians out there.) Your mayonnaise seems more elegant than sausage fat. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Culture is Like a Mayonnaise | Anne Egros, Intercultural Executive Coach

  5. “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

  6. Pingback: “Culture” – word of the year in the year of “The Culture Guy” | Southeast Schnitzel

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