Cultural Iceberg – What’s Below the Surface

In spite of human verbal communication there are still plenty of aspects that make it difficult at times to really understand each other. It is mostly about the unsaid things – the underlying assumptions we make and the values we have.

One particularly gripping example is of a mother in rural Afghanistan. Already having five children she is about to deliver the sixth one in a local hospital where a Western nurse is on duty. Imagine an area that is war torn, where there are few resources and the hospital staff is making ends meet. Everything goes well with the healthy child being delivered and put aside for further medical examination. Or so the nurse thought. When she realized that the newborn was still lying on the cold table with no one to take care of it, she rushed to get the local midwife to do the right things.

It was then that the world as she knew it got cracks. The midwife told her that there had been an agreement with the mother to let the child die after birth. The Western nurse started to argue and wanted to save the newborn. She cited the Hippocratic Oath. She learned that the mother had barely enough food for the family and had lacked the means for family planning.

In the end there was nothing she could do for the newborn. She had to accept that some of her core values were different in the Afghan culture. Saving a life, doing no harm, protecting the weakest are values Western people grow up with.

On a humanitarian aid mission in post-earthquake Haiti the relief workers fed thousands of people. A young mother asked them to give her 3-year old the food portion intended for the emaciated baby in her arms. When aid workers tried to explain that they were here to save the lives of everyone the mother replied that she had to ensure that at least one offspring survived and that she couldn’t rely on being fed in the future. So she concentrated her resources on the strong child.

How we deal with life and death is at the core of how we were brought up. We hardly ever talk about it and might not be aware of it but we may have a strong opinion about what’s right or wrong.

But: there seems to be no universal right or wrong. It’s more like shades of gray on many levels. The student exchange organization American Field Service (AFS) has come up with the image of an iceberg to explain which cultural dimensions we’re usually aware of and which ones may need to be reflected to better understand people from other cultures. It has served me well in the past, that’s why I’m sharing it.


(photos by NOAA on flickr and AFS India)


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