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Culture, Communication and Icebergs

What exactly do we mean when we talk about culture? Is communication just about talking and getting your point across? Just as culture is not just about visible differences, nor is communication just about talking.

Let us start by looking at the meaning of ‘culture’. Many people who have spent a considerable time in a foreign country would probably agree that your own culture is something you take for granted until you are actually out of your usual environment. It is only then that you will realize differences and start missing a lot of things that till date you seriously took for granted. It could be something as simple as clean drinking water, bread for breakfast, a knife and fork for meal times, uncensored news broadcasting, parks, cafes and the list goes on and on. Yes, simple every day things that one is used to, that one may or may not always like, can already be considered as culture.

So we can define culture as a way of life of a group of people. This includes their behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept and which come naturally to them - usually without giving it much thought. These values are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

Cultural Iceberg

However, many aspects we first encounter, if on a holiday, business trip or traveling, are the more visible signs of a culture which only make up a small percentage of what we define as our culture. An often used illustration is the so-called “cultural iceberg”. The examples mentioned above can be considered the tip of the iceberg which can also include further aspects of how people behave (meaning the more obvious behavior you see in public and people you meet, e.g. communication styles, approaches to knowing a person or decision making style).

The part of the iceberg which is still underwater and which makes up the majority of a culture can be considered the invisible signs. These are things such as values and assumptions of a culture which are implicit in nature and cannot be seen straight away and therefore unlikely to be understood – if ever – in a short time.


Now if communication is not just about talking, what else is it about? We can define communication as the imparting or exchanging of information or news. Just as we can put culture into two categories (visible and invisible signs), we can also identify two different types of communication: verbal and non-verbal - or we can categorize it like culture: explicit and implicit.

Verbal communication (explicit) includes the words we choose and our voice we use to utter our thoughts to speak our mind. Non-verbal communication, the implicit part of a culture, makes up so much more when it comes to communication. It includes gestures, postures, facial expressions, eye contact, vocal characteristics, personal appearance and touch. Therefore, the old saying is true that it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it!

Intercultural and Cross-cultural Communication

So if we are to put both parts together, what do we get? There are many names for it, but let’s stick with two commonly used ones: intercultural and cross-cultural communication.

What is the difference?

We can define intercultural communication as the process of sending and receiving messages between people whose cultural background could lead them to interpret verbal and non-verbal signs differently. Intercultural communication involves interactions among people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Cross-cultural communication on the other hand involves a comparison of interactions among people from the same culture to those from another culture. It is looking at a certain idea or concept within many cultures so that these cultures can be compared to one another.

So what is it we want to aim for?

We want to be able to communicate effectively. This does not mean that we will not make mistakes along the way or may even completely avoid offending someone from a different culture, but we want to gain a better understanding so that when we do encounter a certain situation, we have a better understanding of how to go about it, and let the other person see that we are trying. And I believe that universally if someone from a different culture sees that you are trying your best to accommodate them and understand them that they will also likely be more open and forgive any minor mistakes.

So to communicate effectively we need to speak effectively, try to understand other people’s perceptions and listen.

Wait for my next article on “Problems in Intercultural Communication” to find out more about common problems when trying to communicate across cultures.

Need help to overcome these obstacles? You don’t know how to overcome differences? You need more information or training for your company or as an individual? Please check out my cross-cultural lessons including basic cultural etiquette and cultural indicators from many different countries!

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