Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist, and expert in cross-cultural communication describes a phenomenon he calls the “cultural iceberg” in his book, Beyond Culture (1976).
The iceberg depicts the culture of a country, with the visible part above water representing the behavior of a culture (and some beliefs), and the much larger part under water as the deep-seated beliefs, values, and the thought patterns.
This is the part of a culture that is hardest to understand. It is unconscious—our “common sense” assumptions of how our country should operate.
There are many ways to describe the culture of a country, and we almost always look at the part of the iceberg that is above the water: the behavior and customs of the people. It is much harder to examine the value system—what motivates people? Why do they behave the way that they do?
We are taking a values approach to our discussions about American culture, looking at six traditional cultural values that are unique to the United States. Now, more than ever it is important to understand these values that unite us and pass them on to the next generations.
Come along with us on this journey.
Below is Chapter 2 of American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know.
American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know
By Maryanne K. Datesman
October 8, 2018 DRAFT
Chapter 2: Behavior, beliefs, and values: Chipping away at the cultural iceberg
Back in 1978, I had the opportunity to visit Iran, guided by a former student of mine. He had been a doctoral student whose English skills were so weak that he required quite a bit of help writing his Ph.D. dissertation, so we had spent a lot of time together.
The best part of our trip was not just seeing the magnificent sites of Iran, but having the opportunity to get to know my friend’s family and be entertained in their homes. We sat on Persian rugs, ate special food, and learned about local customs.
One day my friend took us to a neighboring city so he could confer with his uncle. He explained that he had been offered teaching positions in three different Iranian universities, and he had to choose which one to accept. Because his father was no longer living, his uncle was now the head of the family and he would tell my friend where he should teach.
The decision would be made on the basis of what would be best for the family, not what would be best for my friend. This was so surprising to me. Why was the welfare of his extended family more important than my friend’s? If he had been married, I could have understood considering the opinions of his wife, but he was not. Why would he let his uncle decide his future?
The answer lies in the differences of deep cultural values: Unlike Iran, in the United States we value the freedom of each individual family member to determine his or her own destiny. Each family member should ultimately have an equal opportunity to seek his or her own version of the American Dream. It just seems like common sense, doesn’t it?
But these deep-seated values of individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and the American Dream are not universal. Just as different countries have different customs and life-styles, they also have different deep-seated cultural values.
How can we understand the differences between the behavior, beliefs, and cultural values of a country?
People are naturally curious about each other, and when we meet people from different countries, we want to know many things:
- What is life like in their country?
- What kind of houses do they live in?
- What kind of food do they eat?
- What are their customs?
If we visit another country, we can observe the people and how they live, and we can answer some of these questions. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The most interesting questions are often the hardest to answer:
- What do the people believe in?
- What do they value most?
- What motivates them?
- Why do they behave the way they do?
The answers to these questions lie below the surface.
If we picture our country as an iceberg, the part above the water represents the behavior of Americans. You can observe what people are doing, even if you don’t understand why. You may agree or disagree with what they’re up to.
At the surface of the water, or just below, are the beliefs of the people. Generally Americans can tell you what they believe—off the top of their heads, or after some reflection.
But it’s the values that are invisible under the water that are the most interesting and the hardest to explain. We are talking about the internal—even subconscious—part of our culture that underlies and motivates the external, observable behavior.
Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and expert in cross cultural communication, describes this phenomenon as the cultural iceberg, with the visible part above water representing the behavior of a culture (and some beliefs), and the much larger part under water as the deep-seated beliefs, values, and the thought patterns.
This is the part of a culture that is hardest to understand.
It is unconscious, learned implicitly, and difficult to change.
It is our subjective knowledge, our “common sense” assumptions of how our country should operate.
Because it is largely unconscious and learned implicitly, it is difficult to articulate. Because it is what motivates us as a people, it is extremely important to understand.
How can you define these deep cultural values of a diverse country like the United States, and what it means to be an American?
Hall has summed up the challenge:
Culture hides much more than it reveals, and strangely enough, what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants. Years of study have convinced me that the real job is not to understand foreign culture but to understand our own.
In this book we will be examining the part of the cultural iceberg below the surface of the water, what it is about our culture that motivates us and causes such a diverse people to self-identify as “Americans.”
We propose a framework of six basic traditional cultural values that represent the historical reasons why people have been drawn to the United States, and how their experience here led to the development of the cultural engine of our country—what holds us together as a unique nation and allows us to continue to assimilate new immigrants and make them “American:”
- Individual freedom
- Equality of Opportunity
- The American Dream
- Hard work
We will look at where these values came from, how they evolved, and how they are at work in our lives today.
This is who we are.
The new book is tentatively titled, “American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know,” written from my perspective as a grandmother.
This is an awesome task, even though we will be drawing on the six cultural values presented on our website and developed in American Ways.
Here are working titles for the first twelve chapters:
- Chapter 1: Desperate times call for desperate measures!
- Chapter 2: Behavior, beliefs, and values: Chipping away at the cultural iceberg
- Chapter 3: We are our beliefs: An overview of our traditional American cultural values
- Chapter 4: Culture wars, and rumors of wars: What divides us now?
- Chapter 5: Our rights and freedoms: What’s so important about our Constitution?
- Chapter 6: Equality of Opportunity: A mighty aspiration and a challenging paradox
- Chapter 7: Self-Reliance: Use it or lose it
- Chapter 8: Competition: Sports and the entrepreneurial spirit
- Chapter 9: Hard Work: What do you do?
- Chapter 10: The American Dream: Dead or alive?
- Chapter 11: Patriotism is not a dirty word
- Chapter 12: Civil Discourse: Talking across the political divide
The final draft version will be out on or before March 1, 2019. It will be available as an eBook, and possibly in a print version in the future.
We’d like to invite you along on this journey—let’s begin a dialogue.
We want your opinions, your stories, and your wisdom. During pre-sale, which ends March 1, 2019, you can buy the book for $5.00. Pre-sale purchasers will not only get the book, but you’ll also get behind-the-scenes updates (via email) as we move this project forward, and then you will be the first to receive the final draft version, on or before March 1st, 2019.