Oh, I see! moments
Travel Cultures Language

Cultural Heritage Below the Water Line

by Sheron Long on September 12, 2013

Iceberg, serving as a metaphor for cultural heritage in which the visible tip belies the vastness hidden below the surface

Culture is like an iceberg where the visible tip belies the vastness hidden below the surface.

What’s a Cultural Iceberg?

The culture or cultures you grow up in affect your deepest attitudes and beliefs, giving you your sense of what’s good or right, what feels comfortable, what behavior is acceptable, and conversely what’s not. What other people see may be only those things “on the surface”—for example, the way you talk or act, what you eat and how you dress.

That’s why culture is often represented as an iceberg. Ten percent is the “surface culture” that shows above the water line and 90%, known as “deep culture, ” is hidden below.

The Cultural Iceberg, showing aspects of surface culture and deep culture that stem from your cultural heritage

The attitudes and beliefs in deep culture affect what shows on the surface.

The hidden part of the iceberg influences everything you do and yet you may not even realize it. Ask yourself, for example, “Does it feel right when things come in threes or fours?

The Rule of 3

If you are from western cultures, the threes probably have it:

  • You get three wishes.
  • The third time’s the charm.
  • Speeches are written to make three points.
  • Favorite characters in fairy tales and songs come in threes—the three little pigs, the three blind mice.
  • Races start with “Get ready. Get set. Go!” Slogans are more memorable to westerners when they’re in threes: “Snap! Crackle! Pop!”

The Significance of 4

To native peoples of the Americas, however, the natural world matters most. There is sacred significance in the Four Directions—North, South, East, and West, and the number four is culturally ingrained:

  • The medicine wheel used for health and healing is divided into the Four Directions.
  • Things come in fours, such as the elements of nature (fire, air, water, earth) or aspects of life (spiritual, emotional, intellectual, physical).
  • Many native legends and creation myths, passed from generation to generation, tell of four brothers or four winds or four ancestors.
  • In ceremonies, the number four and its multiples figure prominently. For example, historical records and accounts show that, in the initiation ceremony of the Chipeway magicians, candidates entered a lodge of four poles where four stones lay before the fire. They stayed there for four days and participated in four feasts.

Comfort based on certain numbers is just one of countless ways that cultural heritage influences your approach to daily life.

Globes showing different cultures with diverse cultural heritage

Look into the “deep culture” part of the cultural iceberg above and find some attitudes and beliefs you hold. How do these aspects of your cultural heritage affect what you do “on the surface”? For example:

  • Consider your concept of time and how it affects when you arrive at appointments and events.
  • How prompt do you feel you have to be to be considered on time?
  • Would people from other cultures agree?

Try a few more examples. Did anything make you say, “Oh, I see”?

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.

Image © iStockphoto


13 thoughts on “Cultural Heritage Below the Water Line

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  4. LOVE this!! I write travel guides for kids that include information and activities to help them learn and get excited about family vacations. THIS is great for parents to understand how valuable preparation is!!

    Would love to use the graphic and credit you.

  5. I really appreciate the Iceberg graphic. I have seen several variations of this online; any idea who should be given credit for this one if used in a presentation?

      • I really like the iceberg infographic. I am helping to create on-line training for Family Peer Advocates (who provide parent-to-parent peer support for families whose children have significant behavioral and/or developmental challenges.) Do you know who I can contact about using this graphic?

          • Hello, I was also interested in speaking to someone regarding permission to use this graphic. I have found quite a few, but I feel this one has the most depth of information. Is there anyone you could direct me to?

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