Is culture an iceberg?

The cultural iceberg

As metaphors capture complex concepts, they are often convenient to define “culture.” Since Edward.T.Hall’s seminal publications (1973, 1979), the cultural iceberg metaphor has a prosperous career in the intercultural communication field. One might admit that it meets the requirements. First of all, its aesthetic produces an excellent effect on a PowerPoint slide. Secondly, it brings down a consensual trait of culture: some aspects such as food, greetings, clothes are visible, but most of them as values, beliefs, assumptions are below the see-level. In this model, developing an intercultural awareness means being able to identify those hidden characteristics. Who would dare to contradict a trainer or professor who presents such a catchy representation?

A static approach

Other metaphors have competed with the iceberg with a better fortune than the Titanic. Culture is sometimes compared with an onion (Hofstede, 1991) whose layers represent symbols, heroes, rituals, values; a tree, again with hidden and visible parts; lenses through which we see the world.

As convenient and consensual as they seem, those metaphors convey the underlying idea that culture is static, frozen – if I dare say -, even monolithic. They reinforce a positivist model postulating that a given culture has once and for all these given hidden traits for any of its members. In this vein, a confident North-American VP visiting the European head-office amazed the sales team when he announced that he would quickly close a deal with a German client company “because Germans are such and such.” 

The positivist paradigms, unfortunately, oversimplify the concept of culture. They conceal that cultures are dynamic social constructs that need to adapt to new constraints, manifest internal tensions, and uniformly apply to their members following their status, age, gender, subculture… 

In a 2013 blogpost, Milton J. Bennett, a leading figure in the intercultural communication field, proposed abandoning the iceberg metaphor and considering culture as a river “that both carved and was constrained by its banks.” Fluidity, adaptation, tensions…, this metaphor dramatically improves the understanding of culture.


A mixing desk

As is often the case, intercultural communication being a recent field is worth crossing the lines and exploring other horizons. In How the World Thinks, A Global History of Philosophy, Julian Baggini suggests another metaphor: a mixing desk where the sliding controls represent values. “The differences between cultures is largely a matter of how much each is turned up or down.” 

This metaphor captures attention for three reasons. The first one, advocated by Baggini, is that the mixing desk highlights that different combinations produce different and harmonious results. In a time of intense polarization, this evidence is worth to be repeated: “listening” to the music of another culture does not threaten yours. In contrast, I am not so sure about an iceberg.

The second reason why Baggini’s metaphor is so interesting is that it is not static anymore, and individuals can “fine-tune” the channels and adapt to different situations. The “tunings” will differ whether you are in a recording studio, a concert hall, or a stadium. Similarly, we “attune” our wording, actions, and expectations depending on whether we are with relatives, colleagues, or total strangers.

Finally, I will argue that the mixing desk metaphor captures the fact that multicultural individuals – as we all are ?- can display a variety of combinations, being one and many all together.

Baggini’s mixing desk offers a dynamic way to define culture. In her newly published and worth reading book, Mai Nguyen-Phuong-Mai (2019) strongly advocated for such a dynamic paradigm. Does that mean that the positivist metaphors mentioned above should be straightly consigned to oblivion and that the mixing desk should reign? I suggest not. 

The power of metaphors

As powerful as metaphors are, they are just rhetorical tricks that foster understanding and memorizing. Let’s not be charmed by the simplistic view that they offer. Indeed, far too often, they shed light on a particular aspect but ignore others. Furthermore, as a fervent defender of diversity, I congruently suggest considering the strengths and limits of a variety of metaphors and associating each one with an identified paradigm. Considering different approaches better conveys the complex concept of culture. Let’s mix, shall we?


Edward.T.Hall, Silent Language, 1973 

Edward.T.Hall, Beyond Culture, 1979

Geert Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations, Software of the mind, 1991

Julian Baggini, How the World Thinks, A Global History of Philosophy, 2018

Mai Nguyen-Phuong-Mai, Cross-Cultural Management, With Insights from Brain Science, 2019

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