Imagine you are an alien, landing in a completely new world. The pink sky behind green clouds. The land is arid. The air smells like oranges. Creatures in control of this planet look different from the people on earth. You observed a group of locals interacting. They speak in an unrecognisable language and make odd gestures. How do you begin to understand?
We navigate unfamiliar cultural settings all the time. As the only adult in a room of teenagers. As the only accountant in a department of engineers. As the only woman in a room of men. Or as the only minority in the majority group.
Navigating unfamiliar places and people is a challenge. In a new place, your mind and senses become awake. New sights, new sounds, new smells, or odd sensations on the skin. In meeting new people, your mind does impressive acrobatics. The mind translates babbling speech, indecipherable body language, bizarre hand gestures and quizzical facial expressions. For example, people from one culture may find it odd when one does not smile. Another culture may find it strange that people smile (it seems this is the cultural norm in Ukraine).
When in a new cultural environment, how can our minds absorb, digest, interpret, organise and cope with all this information?
We use mental models.
What is the Iceberg Model?
When it comes to understanding people from another culture, we need mental models to decipher behaviours. One of the many models used to understand people from other cultures is the Iceberg model.
Why an Iceberg?
Only a tiny 10% part of the iceberg appears above water, while the significant 90% is submerged underwater. The “surface” iceberg refers to the visible elements of culture, such as costumes, music, cuisines, language, newspaper, TV and many others. The “submerged” iceberg refers to the invisible part of the culture, such as superstitions, values, beliefs, myths and much more.
The “surface” culture is also known as the Objective Culture. Objective Culture refers to the conscious and visible elements or objective knowledge of culture. These are elements that can be learned and easily changed.
For example, it is now easy for anyone, anytime and anywhere globally, to learn any language. It is expected that the online language learning platforms market is expected reach USD172 billion in 2027 . Duolingo, the largest language learning app, is worth over USD6 billion .
Anyone can invest time and money into learning the “surface” culture. However, solely relying on learning “surface” culture is not enough to absorb and grasp the essence of the new culture. We need to dive into the depths of the ocean to understand our cultural iceberg.
The “submerged” culture is also known as Subjective Culture. Subjective Culture refers to the subjective knowledge of a culture. Typically, this resides in the unconscious. Subjective Culture is learned implicitly and often challenging to change. It is the very thing that people take for granted and is assumed to be universal understanding.
It’s precisely the moments when you have witnessed something odd; your mind does a double-take and wonders, “Shouldn’t they know already?”
For example, Londoners are conditioned to stand on the right of the escalators in the London Tube. Singaporeans stand on the left of the escalators in the MRT, also known as Mass Rapid Transit. Lisboans tend to scale the escalators and not stand on either side. A foreigner may be utterly unaware of these taken-for-granted rules in Singapore or London and might hear tuts or see frustrated sideway looks from others. Or you might hear locals muttering “tourists” under their breath.
Unfortunately, learning these taken-for-granted rules of a new culture requires trial and error. It requires the consistent courage of constant interaction with the place and the people. It is the continuous reflections and poking at the boundaries. And all too often with limited guidance.
Where does the Iceberg Model come from?
The Iceberg Model of Culture was first proposed by Edward T Hall, an American Anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, in his book “Beyond Culture” in 1976 . Since then, many other researchers and cross-cultural experts have used this model as an analogy to describe culture. Hall observed and researched the nature of culture and found that.
What gives man his identity no matter where he is born-is his culture, the total communication framework: words, actions, postures, gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, the way he handles time, space and materials, and the way he works, plays, makes love and defends himself. … Everything man is and does is modified by learning and is therefore malleable
According to Hall, all behaviour patterns can be learned, and it becomes habitual, stating that.
gradually sink below the surface of the mind and, like the admiral of a submerged fleet, control from the depths.
We uncover the unconscious and habitual patterns only through intercultural encounters. Intercultural encounters bring awareness to the taken-for-granted behaviours and force us to reflect on the significance of the behaviour.
How to use the Iceberg Model?
The primary purpose of the Iceberg Model of Culture is to remind us that culture is more than what we can see. Thus, we cannot judge a new culture based on what we see above the water. It requires time and experiences of trial and error to know the hidden depths of a particular culture. Through interactions and being engaged with the new culture, we can uncover a society’s underlying values and beliefs.
The Cultural Iceberg model can be used for both personal and group learning. In individual learning, draw an iceberg on paper. Note all observations, reflections or conversations in either the “surface” or “submerged” part of the iceberg. Keep updating it as you interact with the culture.
In group learning, the iceberg can be used as a tool for group discussion about one’s culture or in approaching the culture of others.
But Culture is not like an Iceberg…
While mental models are helpful to understand the world, relying on one model limits your perception. As Abraham Maslow once said in 1966 ,
I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Maslow was referring to a cognitive bias called “Law of the Instrument”, also known as “Law of the Hammer” or “Golden Hammer”. This cognitive bias refers to a person’s tendency to over-rely on a tool or method that is most familiar to them. This is the danger of over-relying on the Iceberg Model of culture.
In truth, culture is more complex than the analogy of an iceberg. The Iceberg model does not address the processes, interactions and dynamics of culture. While the iceberg is a tangible object, culture is based on a person’s perception, experiences, context, place and time.
The 90% cultural iceberg perpetuates the notion that culture is all too mysterious and unknowable. In fact, it is the opposite. Social scientists have made strides in understanding culture for the past 100 years. While we don’t yet have all the answers, culture is not entirely mysterious nor unknowable.
Mental models are only representations of reality. They help us to understand the world we live in and to interpret human behaviour. In entering a new culture, it is beneficial to use a mental model for guidance, a compass if you will.
We can use the Iceberg Model as a guide to understanding our culture and the culture of others. Nevertheless, relying solely on one model will limit our perspective on the people and the world. Referring to the compass for directions, and ignoring the maps, the weather and even the constellations will not take us far. As such, we need to constantly learn and try out different models to gain diverse perspectives. Bruce Lee once said 
Learning is definitely not mere imitation, nor is it the ability to accumulate and regurgitate fixed knowledge. Learning is a constant process of discovery – a process without end.
- Brandessence Market Research (2021, April 19). At 18.7% CAGR, Language Learning Market Size to hit USD 172.71 Billion by 2027 Says Brandessence Market Research.
- Cohen, A. (2021, July 29). Duolingo is now worth $6.5 billion, and its CEO is having a very big day. MSN.
- Hall, E. T. & Doubleday & Company. (2006). Beyond Culture. Anchor Books, A Division of Random House, Inc.
- Maslow, A. H. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaisance. Harper and Row.
- Lee, B., & Little, J. R. (2018). Bruce Lee: Artist of life.