When you think of an iceberg – does Rose hanging onto a wooden door, floating in a freezing North Atlantic Ocean spring to mind? Was there space for Jack if she was to move over slightly? And whatever happened to Cal and the kid he stole?

It’s an important talking point which has made its way into a number of dinner party debates since the late ’90s, but unfortunately, we won’t be answering any of those questions in this article.

Instead, we look to Edward T Hall’s – The Cultural Iceberg Theory. Having a good understanding of our cultural dynamics and its influence on today’s society has recently become a hot topic for many employers and businesses. Hall suggests, that like an iceberg, there are only some aspects of culture which are visible and explicit. These aspects can include language, food, music, dress, rituals, to name but a few. 

These aspects manifest within our culture and are easy to see and interact with. But, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Hidden implicit aspects such as world views, religion, spiritual beliefs, decision-making tools and concepts of justice lie under the surface, temporarily out of view. These are also explicit manifestations of culture – as they can influence one’s behaviour, attitude and overall values. In order to build an inclusive culture where teammates feel they can bring their whole selves to work, understanding implicit parts of their culture and how that shapes their behavior and perspective is key.

The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” rings true when discussing Hall’s theory, as a culture can’t be judged only by the aspects that are on show. To really understand the culture of a community, one needs to look below the surface. “When one first enters a new culture, only the most overt behaviours are apparent. As one spends more time in that new culture, the underlying beliefs, values, and thought patterns that dictate that behaviour will be uncovered.”  By gaining a greater understanding of other cultures, individuals are able to grow and get a better understanding of behaviours within that society.

Activities to try in your team

  • In your next team meeting or all hands. Ask folks to share one surprising thing about their home city or home country’s culture that folks may be surprised to know. Shattering myths is a great way to extract the explicit parts of culture from the more hidden elements.
  • Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias. Consider a time you interacted with a team mate from another culture in the office or perhaps on a work trip. Was there something they did or said that caught you off guard and made you feel uncomfortable, or engage in a confrontation with them? Consider this event through the framework of the iceberg model of culture. Did a lack of understanding lead you to take offense or misinterpret their behavior?
  • Think about your last 1:1. Similar to the previous suggestion, consider a time someone’s behavior felt off to you or rubbed you the wrong way. Now consider that person’s identity through the lens of intersectionality and reflect on how their words or actions are informed by their lived experiences and culture. How different are their lived experiences to yours? Could these differences be the source of the tension?

New habits to make a difference

  • Spend time reading biographies and autobiographies of leaders in your field or space or who you admire that grew up in different places to you, what can you learn about the culture in which they grew up and how this has shaped their actions and personal philosophy?
  • Do an audit of the culture in which you identify most closely with – what elements are explicit and what elements are implicit? Reflect on assumptions folks have made about you stemming from a lack of understanding or knowledge about implicit parts of your culture.
  • What’s your relationship with gender roles? Punctuality? Small talk? Discuss this with your team and friends and consider how your cultural differences have shaped your views. Get comfortable exploring your assumptions and values so you can get comfortable being an ambassador of inclusion.

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