Culture icebergs

Social issues - Human rights

When you’re in a different culture, some of the differences are obvious – dress, food, hairstyles, etc. But some are hidden beneath the surface – and if you don’t know about them, they could wreck your work and relationships faster than you’d think.

What kind of things? Well, things like values – showing hospitality to strangers, or how to bring up children. Things like beliefs and attitudes – the value of education, for example, or how women are regarded in marriage, family and society. It takes time to get to know these aspects of a culture.

The most strikingly visible aspects of another culture will be what first preoccupy us, but as we get beneath the surface we’ll find that different ways of thinking may present far greater challenges to our understanding of – and acceptance in – that culture.

Photo: Geoff Crawford/Tearfund

Discussion starter

Some of the ways we think and act are due to our culture, but some are universal – the same the world over – while others are a matter of our personal tastes and preferences. Our behaviour is a mixture of the three, and it’s the same for everyone we meet.

On your own or with a group, look at the following list and decide which category each behaviour comes into: ‘U’ for universal, ‘P’ for personal or ‘C’ for cultural.

Sleeping with a bedroom window open



Running from a dangerous animal 



Respecting older people 



Liking spicy food 



Preferring playing football to reading a book 



Eating regularly 



Eating with knife, fork and spoon 



Being wary of strangers 



Calling a waiter with a hissing sound 



Regretting being the cause of an accident 



Feeling sad at the death of your mother



Wearing white mourning robes for 30 days after the death of your mother 



Not liking to wear mourning clothes for 30 days after the death of your mother 



Saying thank you when someone holds the door for you 



Not saying thank you when someone gives you something 



Working to support your children 



 Working to support your parents in old age



Geeting each other with a kiss



Saving for your retirement



Queuing for a bus, a ticket... or anything



 Belching after a meal



Smiling and talking to strangers



Not smiling and talking to strangers 



Wearing shorts and vest tops  



Wearing clothes to hide certain parts of the body 



Now discuss:

  • What can happen when a personal preference is different to a cultural norm?
  • Are there any suggested answers that you disagree with? if so, why?
  • How can you minimise the risk of offending other people or being offended yourself?
  • Why should we, as travellers, adapt our behaviour?

Two points to remember:

Because of universal behaviour, not everything about people in a new culture will be different: some of what you already know about human behaviour will apply in the country you’re visiting. Because of personal behaviour, not everything you learn about the culture you’re visiting will apply in equal measure, or at all, to every individual who lives in it.