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  • Writer's pictureRandy Weekes

Imagine an Iceberg

A small part of an iceberg, perhaps 10%, is visible above the waterline.  The rest, holding up the visible part, is hidden below the surface.

So it is with culture.  The part we see when we go someplace new – how people dress, interact, their arts, public behaviours, food – the things we can photograph and tell people at home about after a few days’ visit – is above the waterline.  And it is different!  Why?  Why are these people unlike us and our ways?   To understand, we need to look below the waterline.

Geography and Climate

The base of the cultural iceberg is geography and climate.  All humans have the same needs, most profoundly the ability to survive in a particular environment and raise the next generation.  The place and circumstance in which each group finds itself means that it will need to do that in a unique way.  Is there abundant rich soil, encouraging larger cooperative social groups?  Are people in the north or in isolated mountains that only allow small groups to survive in a given space?   Such factors shape what is seen as normal and perhaps even inevitable.  This is also the root of cross-cultural misunderstandings.  My inevitable may conflict with yours.


Our geography shapes our history.  The location of the Caribbean islands put them in the path of European explorers looking for the Orient. Their potential for hosting plantations fed the slave trade and created the mix of peoples who live there now.  What is now Afghanistan lay in the middle of a highway of movement of civilizations for thousands of years, both enriching the culture and creating a nation of people determined to defend their land.

Values and Social Structures

History and experience with the environment shape what is important to a culture – its values – and the ways that societies are structured.  Must leaders be warriors? Do those who intercede with the divine have a lot of influence? Are the old and wise or the young and strong important? What roles do men and women play?  The answers are the best each society can create at that time and in that circumstance.

Norms of Behaviour

It is most efficient if there are unwritten rules about how to do things.  Does the knife go in the right or left hand?  What is the ‘correct’ way to greet someone?  Which side of the road will we drive on?  All of these things are known yet largely invisible to those who accept them – and confusing to those who have different norms.

The Institutions at the Waterline

Institutions evolve in cultures to maintain order and to manage the pressures for change that come from outside the culture and from above the waterline.  Institutions that are ‘legitimate’ can manage those changes.  Those that are artificial (for instance government or religious or educational institutions imposed by conquering societies) have a hard time affecting sustainable, positive change – unless by force, which tends to have the impact of fracturing the iceberg and producing dysfunctional societies.

The Process of Change

Change is inevitable.  What tends not to work well is change that is forced or cajoled from the outside.  Sadly, this reflects much of the history of international ‘development’ work.  Outsiders see a state of affairs or behaviours above someone else’s water line and look within their own iceberg to make sense of it and devise strategies to ‘improve’ things for the others.  Because outsiders often fail to understand the targeted population’s circumstances, history and values, the solution may be inappropriate. It probably won’t be ‘owned’ and sustained by the people it affects.   The solution may even turn out to be destructive.  The closer the engagement is to telling people what to do, the less likely it is to work.  Effective, sustainable change must come from within.  Yet outsiders can play a valuable role – by sharing ideas, access to technologies and ways of doing things, by listening and being supportive.

When icebergs collide

When icebergs encounter one another they don’t smash above the waterline.  Because of their shape they maintain some distance at that level, perhaps even admiring each other’s uniqueness and beauty.  Below the waterline, however, they may grind together.  When working with communities in another culture our failures to understand one another usually come from not comprehending the impact of place, history and values on shaping what appears to each of us to be logical.

Bridging the cultural divide

To close the gap of understanding and to be effective in supporting positive and sustainable change, we need to look within our own iceberg to understand why we are the way we are and within theirs to more fully appreciate the differences.

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