Metaphors of Culture

Working professionals, German or American, usually sign up for an intercultural communication training because they want to learn how to deal with their foreign counterpart/s. Their expectations are simply to learn what things they should say, or do, which will make the American or German do as they think is most pragmatic or logical for a given situation. This expectation is based on the belief that cultural differences are easily dealt with if you know what “buttons” to push. Life would be so easy if this was the case, unfortunately the reality is much more complex.  This example shows too that many people are not fully aware of what “culture” is and how it can influence behaviour.

The term “culture” is derived from Latin and means to “cultivate”. Earlier usages of this term were used to refer to agriculture, later extending to education and upbringing. In the 20th century, “culture” became the central notion of anthropology and was used to explain human actions and activities. There is a plethora of works dedicated to defining and explaining culture, which hints at the complexity of the notion.  While it is all very interesting, most of this literature is too cumbersome and theoretical for a 2 day culture and communication training in which working professionals look for solutions to help them deal with the challenges of a globalised economy. For this reason, intercultural communications trainers tend to rely on metaphors that represent “culture” in a tangible and helpful way; and there are several.

The first metaphor I learned was in one of my first anthropology lectures during my undergrad studies. The professor teaching that class said that “culture” can be likened to a “city map”. According to this metaphor, culture provides its members with a representations of how to do things. Keep in mind that there is more than one road leading to Rome! For example, a city map shows us how to get from our house to an address where our next doctor appointment is, and it helps us find the best way to get there in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort. Culture functions similarly: it is a map that contains information we need so that we know how to interpret behaviours, whether linguistic or non-verbal. For example: if someone says “I hate to bother you, but…” most Americans will recognise that a request is about to be made because it is a cultural pattern typical to Americans, as well as other English speaking communities. Germans don’t use this linguistic pattern because they find the word “hate” to be too strong. Instead, Germans prefer to begin a request with background information concerning a situation that needs action, and then end with a request formula. (Naturally these are not the only ways to make a request). Our map is learned over the many years that we are socialised when we were children, youngsters and young adults.

Other metaphors include Hofstede’s “software of the mind”: a reference that fits well in our technologically dominated world. We all have the same “hardware”, or ability to become socialised, but during our socialisation, we learn “ways of doing things” that differ from social group to social group. Although Hofstede didn’t mean it, this representation also suggests that one only needs to know the right button in order to behave appropriately. As attractive as that may be, it is not realistic because people are not machines. We don’t always act the same way simply because each situation is  different. Humans are able to differentiate and choose behaviours they believe to be appropriate for the situation.

Culture has been compared to an onion, a metaphor that suggests it is multi-layered. For example, someone like myself is American of Irish-English background, white, female, born in the 1950s, educated in the social sciences, hobby musician, etc. Each of these layers come together to make up me.  In this way we should see that as individuals we belong to many different social communities, each of which has its own rules, languages and conventions, and ways of seeing the world. It helps to point out that people are individuals and not just nationalities. In other words, people of a particular nationality are not all going to behave in the same way in any given situation.

The metaphor I like to use is the “cultural iceberg”.  With this representation, the notion of culture focuses on observable and unobservable phenomena. Above the waterline we have eating habits, dress, architecture, music, greeting styles, language, etc. Values, attitudes and beliefs are those aspects of a culture that one cannot easily observe and are therefore  placed below the waterline. The behaviours above the waterline are relatively easy to learn, or even imitate, mainly because we can see them. As a classic example take Japan greeting style: it is not uncommon to observe westerners automatically bow back to  Japanese business partner. As humans we want to appear polite! But to understand the “why” of bowing, and its complexities (e.g., how low to bow to whom?), we need to take a look below the iceberg’s waterline.

It is important to keep in mind that rather than prescriptions for behaviour, cultural values, attitudes, beliefs are filters for interpreting observed behaviours and making decisions for one’s own behaviour. In the next contribution we will look at German and American icebergs.





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5 responses to “Metaphors of Culture

  1. Mary Georgiou

    Dear Sabrina,
    This story of mine may not be completely related to the text below but then it is, so let me share it with your readers and you.
    One of my closest friends is a woman who was born in England, from English parents but was raised in Jamaica, studied in the US, lived in Canada, finally settled here in Cyprus with her husband. I believe that one of the things that link me to this person, let me call her Susanne, is our similar history of mobility, our different sense of belonging. Now, for the past two months she has been distant with me, she looked angry with me but my ego was stopping me from asking her what was wrong. Apparently her ego was stopping her from telling me what I had done to offend her. And for these two months I was giving my own interpretation of our conflict, she had hers. I finally talked about this to a common friend who acted as a mediator and Susanne asked me at last to talk about our differences. It turned out that I had completely misinterpreted the situation and we were both blaming each other for not being a good friend for different reasons.
    Why am I boring you with this story? I mainly thought it was our cultural differences that had provoked the tension. In fact, she felt I was not understanding enough; I was not there to listen to her when she most needed me. While I felt that she did not care enough for me to tell me what was wrong.
    On second thought, there may be some cultural differences involved here; as a Cypriot I may tend more to talk about problems, shout at a friend, may be even call him/her names but the tension is out, the problem is spelled out and we can move on. Susanne being more English than anything may tend to be more secretive, may have more trouble expressing her discontent.
    But what is most important to me here is that human communication in general can be tricky and what is needed most for successful intra- or inter-cultural communication is good will. We don’t always hear what the other really means. The whole situation made me think of this wonderful book by Deborah Tannen: “That’s Not What I Meant! How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships”. Highly recommend it to everyone.

    • Dear Mary,
      Thank you for the story. I think it fits wonderfully with my blog topic. It shows how many different levels there are to communication and culture. I also think it is great that you were able to find the reason behind the differences. It is interesting how different cultural groups negotiate their relationships, e.g., show interest, intimacy, privacy, and the like. Thank you also for the book reference. Tannen’s work is excellent!

  2. I agree that metaphors are very useful when discussing culture. I tend to finish off any discussion in class by asking the participants to make up their own. It’s great fun and always brings in new perspectives and insights. So for example in a class last week we discussed culture as a tree, as weather, as the structural framework of a house, and as a complex system.

  3. I Like the metaphor of iceberg. I’m a Chinese living in France, have four-month working experience in Germany. The communication channels between east and west, ladies and gentlemen, different nations, confuse me always. Thanks for sharing these ideas and thoughts, you are doing a great job!

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