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.
Many 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.
Generally, 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.
Christian 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!