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Tools Behind Our Books: The Cultural Iceberg

Our purpose and goal behind the 'ittle Bear stories is to help increase compassion and cooperation in the next generation, through the stories of a little bear.

'Ittle Bear will have many adventures, starting with the first book 'ittle Bear: The Adventures Begin, that is coming in 1Q2023.

To achieve our goal, we are drawing on research and tools to help understand intercultural interactions.

I'll share these tools with you, so that you can see what has been used to build the stories.

For now, I'm sharing the format as I use them in my training for global engineering companies with a quick addition of 'ittle Bear, but over time, we will develop kid-friendly graphics and designs to have available for educators to download and use in classrooms. If you are a teacher who would like to bring discussion on cultural differences in your classroom, please reach out as we would love to work with you in developing resources for you.

One of the earliest and simplest models for understanding cultural differences is the Cultural Iceberg which was introduced in 1976 by Edward Hall.

The Cultural Iceberg says that when we interact with another culture, we experience differences in one of two ways.

The easiest is the part above the water. These differences are observable. When we land in the airport in another country, we hear sounds that are different (languages, dialects, accents), we see people who are different than us (physical appearance such as hair color, eye and facial shape, height, and weight as well as different clothes), and we experience different behaviors (to queue or not, driving on another side of the road, etc).

Those differences are easy to recognize. We say, “Hey, I’m in a different place. This is different from home.” We experience those differences differently, some of us may be curious, some excited, some may be uncomfortable or scared, and some wish it was just like home.

However we experience them, these differences are known and we can decide how we want to handle them. The more we can be curious and open, flexible and accepting, the better experience we will have. We will learn other ways of thinking and doing the same thing, we’ll understand the culture on a whole different level. We won’t be frustrated all the time (frustration is a function of unmet expectations) when things “just aren’t like home”.

While this is tough to do, the even tougher part is to work with the hidden part of the iceberg, where things get much more challenging. These are the differences that aren’t observable, and these are where the most frustration occurs.

This is where we interpret someone else’s behavior and assign the values and intentions of our own cultural experience rather than what the person themself may have intended.

This touches all kinds of our interactions: … how do we treat time. … how much power difference (or hierarchy) do we recognize … who makes decisions and how is it done … how much respect we show to authority (or hierarchy) … how do we build trust … how do we disagree … how do we communicate

And just like I have become fascinated in diving underwater in the past year, when we can dive underwater to investigate these differences, then we increase understanding.

We recognize that someone isn’t the jerk we thought they were. We realize they have a different definition and rulebook on how to disagree.

We realize that the colleague who is chronically late to meetings isn’t lazy, sloppy, and disrespectful. They likely don’t even realize that they are doing anything wrong.

We realize that the young child who has the audacity to call a teacher by their first name isn't rude and precocious. Or on the other hand, continues to address them with a formal title isn't pushing the teacher away or being distant. They just learned a different set of rules and behavior than we did.

In a later post, I’ll share more about different tools and models for understanding these underwater differences.

What about you?

When have you experienced a cultural difference, either above or below the waterline?

What did you learn from it?

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