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The Thawing Iceberg Tip


Most everyone who has given or taken a basic cross-cultural awareness course is familiar with the “Culture as an Iceberg” analogy.  It goes something like this:

When you encounter another culture you are likely to see some noticeable cultural differences right away, such as type of dress, diet, music, etc., but what you immediately see is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s what lies beneath that tip – what is not apparent – that is much more significant.  Those are the underlying values, history, and beliefs and they are far deeper in both difference and importance, even if not as obvious at first glance.

In today’s highly globalized world, many cultures (especially in younger generations) are starting to look a little bit more like each other on the surface. 

GDI Senior Associate R. Barry Spaulding applies his more than 30 years of working in China to coach Westerners on their work in China as well as coach Chinese on their work in the United States.  He says that one of the biggest challenges he currently sees is that China, today, looks so modern and so Western that Westerners often expect that Chinese behavior will also be similar.

“We see so many Americans go to China to set up an office, and the modernization makes them think there is more Westernization than there is,” he says.  “However, values are so deep, when that is unrecognized there is a disconnect.”

Like an iceberg with a slowly melting tip, what lies beneath remains firmly and solidly in place.  Now, even the tip is becoming harder to detect.  The consequence is that cultural misunderstandings may become harder to predict and prevent.