Cultural Iceberg

June 25, 2005

Recently, I had the opportunity to go through a brief cultural orientation held by the talented folks at ACI Baobob Center in Dakar. During the meeting, besides learning a couple of basic words in Wolof and eating a traditional meal around the “bowl” we are introduced to an incredible cultural orientations model that attempts to explain cultural interaction with the analogy of an iceberg. I found ACI’s interpreation of the"iceberg" model, which was first introduced in 1995 in the book Doing Business Internationally, to be an extremely effective model for attempting to understand cultural perspective and I’m frankly quite shocked that after +$180K and two college degrees later (from great international schools) I hadn’t come across this model.

How it works

In brief, I this is how the model works. When you first arrive in a foreign culture, you start at the tip of the iceberg. Above the waterline, which represents your level of cultural awareness, are the actions, thoughts, and words (observational behavior) of a culture. What you don’t see, however, until your waterlevel lowers revealing more of the iceberg is the beliefs, values, and assumptions of a culture that motivates the observational behavior above the surface. Thus, the waterline is one of the reasons wars are fought and you can’t help but feel lost when exposed to a new culture.

Correspondingly, one of the keys to cultural orientation is understanding the three elements of human behavior since we tend to pack or own beliefs, values and assumptions along with our bags when entering a new culture. The human dimension is that we are all common in that we all need to do things like eat and drink to survive. The cultural dimension explains how and what a culture prefers to eat. Lastly, is the personal dimension that influences things like when you are used to eating dinner. In a foreign land, understanding your own personal dimensions (much of it driven by your culture) is important to help avoid the stereotypes which are often seeded and nurtured at this level.

“Black Lies” One of our instructors claimed that “white lies” should be renamed to “black lies” since perhaps nowhere is the art practiced more then in Senegal. There is a popular expression in Wolof that goes, “a lie that keeps people together is better then the truth which breaks people apart”. From a westerner’s cultural perspective you can begin to see how quickly we can begin misconstrue Senegalese culture. Take for example the meaning of “liar”. If I was having an affair and my friend who I had confided this information divulged this to my community, I could rightfully call him a liar within the Senagelese cultural context. From a Westerner’s perspective, while clearly I would be angry at my “once friend” for betraying my trust, internally I would not be able to consider him a liar for revealing the truth which I had been trying to hide. This is not the case in Senegal, where the greater crime is not keeping a secret that potentially threatens the social fabric of the group.

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I'm a technologist/geek living in Nairobi, Kenya. I believe open code and data can make the world a better place. Follow me on Twitter;

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