What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

Reading Time: 6 minutes

cultural iceberg

We’re excited to welcome Sheri of Engineering Ministries International. EMI mobilizes architects, engineers, construction managers, and other design professionals–including those through an incredible internship program–to provide design services for those helping the poor. We’re talking water projects, hospitals, schools, orphanages, you name it. Meanwhile, they raise up disciples and trained professionals in-country.

Sheri applies these cross-cultural points poignantly to the elements of designing cross-culturally–but we believe you’ll find inescapable parallels to any cross-cultural work. Hopefully it will help jumpstart real solutions for cross-cultural sensitivities, and help any culture manifest Jesus Christ according to its own cultural icebergs.

It may even reveal unseen obstacles to our presentation of the Gospel. 

It is 4:42 a.m. I wake up in an orphanage in south-eastern India.

Though tired from yesterday’s EMI project work, I cannot remain asleep as a mosque’s siren signals the start of Ramadan fasting.

Wide awake, I lie in bed and listen to the other sounds around me. A Hindu neighbour rings a tiny bell as he chants his morning prayers at the family shrine. A vendor shouts the names of fruits for sale. A rooster crows. Without warning, a teenage girl slips silently past the curtain that functions as the door to my room and bows at my bedside with a tray of hot tea.

Every day in India reminds me that this place is different from the America of my childhood. Yet our work with EMI begs the question, just how different is it? How does living and working in a radically different culture affect design? Isn’t a building still a building? At the end of the day, aren’t all people really the same inside? Doesn’t the bond of Christ bridge the gap within our culturally diverse teams and the clients we serve so that we don’t have to worry about differences?

Every traveller quickly learns that people from other nations eat different foods, wear different clothes, and speak different languages.

But culture runs much deeper. As with icebergs, the greater mass of any culture lies beneath the surface, under the waves. We  must become adept at recognizing these icebergs and the essential aspects of culture which lie below the waterline.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall first developed the iceberg concept in 1976 as a way to understand human societies. He explained that the parts of culture which we can observe with our senses—clothes, food, gestures, music, etc.—are just the tip of the iceberg. You might call these the What.

Above-the-water concepts are explicitly passed on by other members of that culture, as when I teach my toddler when to wear shoes or use her “indoor voice.” Since these aspects of culture are consciously learned, they are also more easily recognized and changed. Thus, on a project trip we might learn to eat spicy food, sing a Spanish song, or bow rather than shake hands.

cultural iceberg

The Cultural Iceberg, adapted by Sheri L. (2016) from work by Edward T. Hall (1976).

But the visible, above-the-water part of an iceberg indicates an invisible and much greater section below. These below-the-water aspects of culture are, by far, the more important and more influential parts. They include attitudes and beliefs, values, expectations, and assumptions—the essence of worldview. The below-the-water parts of cultures can be called the Why.

Since these generally subconscious components of culture are caught by watching those around us more than they are explicitly taught, they are much harder to identify and change. Most of us have never stopped to consider our own under-the-water culture, let alone another’s.

So how can we begin to recognize the cultural icebergs around us?

Looking for Ripples

One effective method is to look for “ripples.” Just as a disturbance on top of the water can indicate something submerged beneath, it is possible to use what you can directly observe to lead toward what you can’t.

Sirens do not tend to sound at 4:42 a.m. unless there is a good reason. That’s a ripple. When you hear the What, start looking for the Why.

Let’s look at some cultural examples below. What can the visible or audible cues around us tell us about a people’s values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations?

The What:

My toddler is learning to wear shoes at specific times & places, and to speak more quietly inside than out.

The Why:

What am I implicitly teaching her about cleanliness, respect, and notions of space?


The What:

Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan.

The Why:

How do Muslims’ beliefs about God, sin, and salvation affect when and what they eat?


The What:

The teenage girl at the orphanage feels free, perhaps even obligated, to enter my room without knocking at 5:00 a.m.

The Why:

What are her beliefs about the values of privacy, status, and hospitality?


Remarkably, even when we recognize differences in terms of religion, food, language, and dress, it is still easy to proceed with our cross-cultural work relatively unaffected. (For those of us in design, perhaps it’s as if survey maps, buildings, and water systems exist apart from culture.) It is tempting to believe that visible differences are a façade, and that people are really the same deep down. Thus it follows that good design–or good community work, church work, or business-as-mission–should be carried out in basically the same way around the world.

If we persist in this assumption, however, we run the risk of making significant errors in both the process and products of our labor.

Visible vs. Invisible

Consider a few observations, based on real project trips with Engineering Ministries International. What might these above-the-water ripples indicate about the deeper culture of our teammates, clients, and host countries?

cultural iceberg


In the Sunday church service, the team observes that men and women sit on opposite sides of the room with a buffer space of 3-4 feet down the centre of the hall.


How does this culture preserve the modesty and dignity of both genders? What do they believe are the proper roles for men and women? How will this affect their values & expectations for a building or campus design?



The lead architect gives a computer presentation of the team’s work so far. The client has little to say in response except “It looks so beautiful!”


What might this client believe about status, respect, and computer technology? If there was something he didn’t like or agree with, would he feel free to express himself? How might someone from that culture communicate something negative?



Overflowing sewage on the campus interferes with training events, but the ministry leadership state they are “unaware of any problems” at the site.


What might this culture believe about covering shame? Which would they consider the bigger issue – leaking sewage or loss of face? How will these values affect their reception of design “solutions” from a team of troubleshooting engineers?

This post originally appeared at EMIworld.org, and is gratefully reprinted with permission.

Editor’s note: Sheri makes some astute observations about what we don’t see–and how it affects others’ response to us and our ministries…and even our personal, culturally-nuanced portrayal of Jesus Christ. Suggested exercises:

  • Begin to keep track, perhaps in a notebook, of cultural ripples. Becoming observant of the “what” is a clear first step.

  • With safe cross-cultural relationships and with others who share your culture, gently present your questions. 

  • Compare interpretations of the “Why”. How do Westerners’ perspectives, for example, differ from nationals’ explanations? 

  • Keep track of overarching cultural principles, and seek to apply them to future interactions as you assemble a fuller, more accurate picture of the invisible.

  • Ask yourself,

    • What could be counter-cultural or even offensive about our methods of ministry?

    • Which of these methods are inherent to the Gospel–part of the “stumbling block” of the Cross (i.e. needing to humble ourselves and repent–see 1 Corinthians 1:23)?

    • Which of these are unnecessary obstacles carried over from our own culture and/or freedom in Christ (Romans 14:13)?

    • How can I be a “Jew to the Jews”, so to speak, becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22)?

      Catch Part II and Part III of this series here!

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