How to avoid ‘hitting an iceberg’

In 1976, the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall used the iceberg analogy to illustrate what we can see of a culture and what’s ‘below the surface’. Can this help expats navigate uncharted waters?

An instance of culture clash

Imagine an expat mother who comes from a culture where kids are allowed to move freely around restaurants and where waiters enjoy interacting with children of all ages. She now lives in a country where kids are expected to stay at the table and not disturb the other patrons. One day, waiters are visibly unimpressed by her kids’ ‘spirited’ behaviour at a restaurant. Another customer openly reprimands her for not keeping them in check. She leaves the restaurant angered and humiliated, wondering if she is fundamentally ill-suited to live within this culture.

What newcomers see…

Did she just hit ‘an iceberg’? Could she (if forewarned or equipped with the right navigational tools) have steered clear of this situation? Perhaps. For just like a ship can only see the tip of an iceberg from afar, when we first enter a new culture, only the most overt behaviours are apparent to us. Many of the culture’s underlying beliefs and core values remain ‘below the surface’.

Navigating uncharted waters

The iceberg analogy has been used by coaches to help international companies and individuals navigate uncharted waters. If companies are unaware of what’s ‘below the surface’ they can experience misunderstandings and frustrations that lead to abandoned or delayed projects, financial losses and failure.

Understanding the unobservable

Equally, cross-cultural misunderstandings and frustrations can also put a huge strain on the shoulders of an expat that results in a failed assignment. So how can we seek to understand what we cannot see? Edward T. Hall suggested that the only way to learn the internal culture of others was to actively participate in their culture. Certainly, as you spend more time in a new culture, many of the underlying beliefs, values and thought patterns that dictate the observable behaviours can be uncovered and better understood.

It takes time…

Here at Global Connection, we might also suggest that intercultural coaching has helped many of our members adapt to the culture of their host country. We can help expat partners to be more aware of the behaviours and attitudes of locals when it comes to parenting, personal space, time, work and much more. For example, how kids are expected to behave at restaurants!

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