Icebergs are huge masses that float by Canada’s eastern coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador each spring. They are an absolutely breathtaking sight and if you are considering living in, or visiting St. John’s this is another great reason! In this post I will use the iceberg as a metaphor for culture, and explain how knowing your own cultural iceberg can lead to better cultural awareness in Canada – helping you to build successful relationships with colleagues, classmates, and new friends.
The concept of the ‘cultural iceberg’ was introduced to me by a cross-cultural trainer when I worked at Hire Immigrants Ottawa, where I helped Canadian employers to understand the value that newcomers can bring to our economy. In that training I learned that culture influences every relationship we have, yet this influence often goes unacknowledged.
Culture is like an iceberg because, as you can see in the pictures, like an iceberg, only 10% of culture is ‘visible’. The majority of culture – some say 90%, remains ‘hidden’ under the surface.
During your first days in Canada, explore the ‘visible’ aspects of Canadian culture: listen to some Canadian music, visit national monuments and museums, try eating maple syrup and poutine. These aspects of culture are always fun to share and celebrate. You might even be asked to share the ‘visible’ elements of your culture in turn – especially the food!
The ‘hidden’ 90% of culture is where inter-cultural relationships become trickier. The 90% is revealed over time in the way that a person acts, how they make decisions, how they address others, etc. In my work, I have heard countless examples where the ‘hidden’ 90% of culture caused a conflict in the workplace, hurt a friend’s feelings, or caused someone to miss an opportunity. I believe that these circumstances could have been avoided if both parties had more cultural awareness and understood how their ‘hidden’ culture can play a role.
I remember John, who found himself in conversation with a stranger at a bus stop. He asked the stranger, “Where do you live?” In John’s culture, this is a common question to get to know someone. However, in the stranger’s culture, this was a signal that John was getting too personal, and may be a dangerous person.
I remember Joan, who had an interview for a job that was completely aligned with her skills and experience. Joan arrived 15 minutes late for the interview because she needed to take her mother to the doctor, and she thought it would be acceptable to run a few minutes late. Her interviewer on the other hand prioritizes work over family, and has a very rigid concept of time. Joan’s tardiness communicated to the interviewer that she was disinterested and unreliable. Joan didn’t get the job.
I remember Susan, who noted to her new colleague one day that they had ‘put on some weight’. This comment deeply offended the colleague, whereas Susan thought her comment would be helpful and establish a deeper friendship between them.
Living in Europe and Latin America, I myself have struggled within a new culture. I have felt personally offended, and I have offended others because I did not know the consequences of my own ‘hidden’ culture, and how it would impact my inter-cultural relationships. I was often frustrated with myself and others for not being able to work with these differences.
The truth is there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ culture. We have each learned our own cultures, and this learning should be deeply respected. While our value systems will look very different, one value that should be shared by all is respecting this difference.
My Canada Plan services include cultural preparation coaching, and how to live in Canada where your ‘hidden’ culture may influence your relationships. Starting with the iceberg, we will work together to help you prepare for cultural difference, and use that preparation to succeed in the workplace, at school, and in the community.