Cultural Icebergs

Hello everybody. I’m Victoria Rennoldson, Communication and Culture Coach, and welcome to Wednesday Words with communication and cultural strategies and skills for you to learn. You can choose to watch this by clicking ‘play’ on the video above, which also has subtitles.

Or, because I know that many of you like to listen to podcasts, you can listen to the audio only version, by clicking below:

Finally, you can also read the blog as well, right here below.

Today I’ll be talking about the Cultural Iceberg. The national culture we grew up in has a deep impact on how we see the world, how we interact with the world, and how we experience it. We may not realise it, and in fact, this is something which is often a challenge for us, because we may not realise the impact it’s having, particularly when we assume that we are doing business in a globalised, connected world, where everybody operates in the same way.

Or do they?

I would argue that the way we see the world is quite different, depending on our cultural influences. If you imagine it’s like wearing a pair of glasses (spectacles) and you’re not realising that you’re wearing them. The lenses of your glasses are impacting the way that you hear people, the way that you experience what they’re doing with their body language, with their gestures, what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it.

Likewise, the other person is wearing their own pairs of glasses without realising it. And of course, if we don’t realise we’re wearing those glasses, this might lead us to some problems, because we interpret what’s going on through our glasses, and this can lead to judging what’s going on, and perhaps misinterpreting what the real intention is.

It can lead to problems in international project teams, for example, where there is miscommunication or misunderstanding about what is required or wanted, or what something meant, and it can lead to problems externally with customers, which is a really big problem if you’re doing business globally.

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I know that I have sometimes had clients say to me ‘Oh this happened’, ‘I noticed this behaviour’,  or ‘I heard this and it surprised me,’ or ‘it was really unexpected’, or even ‘I felt this was “rude” in this context’, and I put “rude” in inverted commas, because this is an interpretation. I think sometimes we need to take a step back and actually say: was that really the intention for that person in that professional business context to be rude? Probably not… Probably there are some other factors at play, and this is where culture comes in.

We have to realise that there are cultural factors which are influencing how we’re interacting with each other in business. So, today I  wanted to share with you the idea of the Cultural Iceberg, because I feel this is a really helpful metaphor, which I use with my clients to help them understand how this works in reality.

So what I want you to imagine is a very large iceberg, sitting in the water. The reality is that only 20% of the iceberg sits on the surface, so let’s imagine a small peak here. And that 20% is what is visible and audible and observable. So, language (what’s being said), how we’re saying it, the body language, the behaviours. And that only makes up 20%.

The vast majority of the iceberg sits below the surface, and that is the 80%. And that really is the 80% that you don’t know about. If you imagine what’s visible, audible, and you experience, below that sit, for example, beliefs, attitudes, the drivers behind the core aspects of how people fundamentally think about life. And these are not visible to you, as people don’t go around explaining them, because sometimes they’re not even aware that’s what’s driving their behaviour, their language and communication.

That’s why it’s good to take the step back to explore it in more detail. For example, in my cultural training I explore a number of different factors which are important and influence how we do business globally, and I’m going to share now with you just a few examples of these particular factors, so you can get a sense of how they work.

So, the first topic is: what does it mean to be professional? Now, this is a huge topic, and includes many different subtopics underneath it, but I can see that you’re probably starting to imagine this one already. For some cultures, being professional means being very formal. Maybe it’s about hierarchy, and how you’re interacting with senior management, and that has an impact on how you go get your decisions made, how you interact in a meeting, or address your emails. What does it mean to be professional also impacts how do we think about our personal life in the business context. For example, how much does a person share about their personal life in a work context. For some cultures, not much is shared at all, and there’s a real separation between the two. But in other cultures, it’s very open, and you share exactly what’s going on with your marriage, kids, and so on. And it can also be about small talk: how important is small talk? And how open are you within that, or is it just a conversation ritual? So hopefully you can see, this topic alone, ‘what does it mean to be professional?’ has varying interpretations, depending on your culture.

The next factor I wanted to talk about is body language. Now, body language is an interesting one, particularly if you’re working virtually with global customers or internal project teams. The volume of body language changes from culture to culture. I mean that for some cultures, body language is very expressive, it’s very loud, it’s about taking up lots of space, the hands and arms go up, and also sometimes this is accompanied with the voice, so the voice is louder and more expressive. It has also to do with hand gestures, facial expressions, and how much emotion you’re showing. I’m sure that you can imagine that there are some cultures where it’s the opposite. Where it’s not professional to show too much body language, it’s much more restrained and still, perhaps you don’t show much emotion through your face, and in fact, it’s about what you do with your words, rather than with your body language.

Now moving on to the third factor, relationship to time, and this is a big topic. We may assume in a globalised world, we all understand how time works, that we want to be on time, meet our deadlines, and deliver our projects on time. However, there are varying relationships to time, depending on culture. Perhaps if you stop to think about this, you can think of some examples. There are certainly some cultures where time is incredibly important, so what matters is that you’re on time for meetings, if not early. You deliver the project on time, and you deliver to your commitment, that the project, or the work that you’re doing, is very planned and sticks to the process, that risks are mitigated as part of that.

For other cultures, ‘time’ is a more flexible concept, and the idea is that if there are varying projects happening at the same time, maybe that means the best one will be delivered, not necessarily all of them. Time can be flexible for some cultures also because new opportunities might come in, and so you might want to reprioritise, rather than finish the original project you’re working on. And for some cultures, time is flexible because you need to change the priority of what you’re working on that day, or who you’re meeting.

So there you go, a short explanation of the Cultural Iceberg, and how it works. I do hope that’s helped you to think about what you’re not aware of at the moment, so what you’re seeing, observing, experiencing and interpreting through your own cultural glasses, and what you might need to take the step back on and explore the possible interpretations.

I also hope that sharing some of the cultural factors today has been helpful to explore these ideas: What does it mean to be professional, varying aspects of body language, and how people have different attitudes to time.

These are core principles and examples of areas I explore in my cultural training with my individual and corporate team clients. I work with people who are either relocating to a new location, often to the UK, or to an English-speaking country, or because they want to work much more effectively as an international team, and find out how culture and the cultural aspects and dynamics are perhaps not aware to them and not visible to them right now.

It always starts with self-awareness, but self-awareness by itself is not enough. You also need to have thoughts about how you’re going to create the strategies and the action plans to change what’s going on and perhaps to bridge where there are some cultural gaps, and find better ways of working better together.

I do hope you found today’s Wednesday Words helpful and if you have questions on this, then I would love to hear from you, please feel free to contact me.

And if you or your team are experiencing at the moment some frustrations working internationally, or you notice you’re not working as effectively as you could, either internally or externally with customers, then please do get in touch with me, because I would love to know how I can support you with cultural training.

Thank you so much for joining me today for Wednesday Words, and I look forward to seeing you next time.

You might also like reading:

Key Factors for Effective Body Language

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