Melting the Cultural Iceberg: A Journey to Cultural Awareness

Carol Southall, Senior Lecturer, Staffordshire Business School



As tourists we are apt to display a level of cultural arrogance that is often not representative of the person we are in our daily lives. We make assumptions about a destination, its people, lifestyles and all the overtly obvious elements of culture to which we expose ourselves during a trip, such as language, dress, religion and food.

In 1978 Edward Said controversially identified ‘the other’ in reference to those with whom we are unfamiliar, highlighting the false cultural representations informing western preconceptions and subsequent imperialist behaviour. Often used to refer to people of ‘oriental’ (Middle-eastern or Asian) origin, Said’s seminal work focused on western perceptions of the ‘other’, and difficulties in integrating western and eastern cultures (Said, 2003).

When we are exposed to the ‘other’ we may display a level of cultural superiority in an effort to assimilate our environment. We consider our own culture to be superior to that which we are experiencing, as our own cultural norms may be our only reference point on our cultural ‘compass’. We thus demonstrate an air of arrogance in assuming this. In struggling to understand the cultural context in which we find ourselves, we revert to the relative familiarity of what we know and understand, assuming it to be superior to that in which we find ourselves. We fail to fully understand other cultures and thus respond inappropriately to them and do not engage with them, often preferring to find a familiar enclave and settle there in the relative comfort of a familiar environment, McDonalds, a British pub, restaurants serving English breakfast (in the case of English tourists) etc.

In today’s globally connected world there is an increasing call for global citizens, and yet the question is, what is a global citizen, how do we connect, and in a time of political turmoil and upheaval, for the UK in particular, how important is this?

A global citizen is someone who is able to demonstrate an understanding of the world and their place in it. The interconnected nature of the world as a result of globalisation means that increasingly there is a need for those who are able to demonstrate a high level of cultural awareness.

Cultural awareness is a result of immersion, culture shock and introspection, and even good humour plays its part. Cultural immersion requires time, effort, knowledge and understanding, but it is the key to cultural awareness and the ensuing cultural competence required for greater cultural integration.

There are 3 key ingredients in cultural competence:

  • Self-knowledge
  • Experience, not just in the form of books and films, but immersion in culture. Try it, touch it, eat it, make mistakes, apologise, listen, try again
  • Positive change

In 1986 Weaver applied an iceberg analogy to previous cultural literature (Hall, 1976) and subsequently identified the cultural iceberg, consisting of 3 layers:

  • Surface culture – including the more obvious elements of culture such language, food and dress
  • Unspoken rules – hidden below the surface and taking more time for an outsider to understand, these include business and social etiquette and symbolism of colours
  • Unconscious rules – the most difficult and yet the most important characteristics to know and understand. These are the things that people adhere to and believe in without conscious thought, including verbal and non-verbal communication, sense of time, physical distance and emotional responses.

So what can we do to become a global citizen? To melt the cultural iceberg and uncover and understand the unspoken and unconscious elements of culture that lead from cultural sensitivity to increased cultural awareness and cultural competence, and ultimately facilitate global interconnectedness and understanding? It is suggested that the only way to learn the internal culture of others is to actively participate in their culture. This takes time, commitment and an open mind.

We cannot judge a new culture based only on what we see when we first enter it. We must take time to get to know individuals from that culture and interact with them. Only through this can we uncover the values and beliefs that underlie the behaviour of that society and hope to make positive steps towards cultural understanding and integration. Consideration of all as equals is fundamental to progressing cultural awareness, argues Vaudrin-Charette (2019).

Only through cultural competence on the part of all groups in society can there be greater acceptance between and within groups of people, and, who knows, the world may just become a better place.

References

Said, E. (2003) Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Vaudrin-Charette (2019) Melting the Cultural Iceberg in Indigenizing Higher Education: Shifts to Accountability in Times of Reconciliation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. 157, Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com)

Weaver, G.R. in Paige, R.M. (1986) Cross-cultural orientation: new conceptualizations and applications. University Press of America.

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