The cultural iceberg

I have always been interested in the iceberg concept of culture (see credit on two of the photos for source. I couldn’t find the third one). I am no expert but it has helped me understand my somewhat mixed cultural identity. The surface area is what visitors tend to know about a country. When you move there you learn more about the unspoken and unconscious rules of the culture. Can you ask someone what they earn or the amount paid for their house? What about talking about religion, or sleeping in the same bed if you are not married?

Despite the fact that I am no longer a South African citizen and have not lived there for 25 years, I consider myself South African. Why? A million memories of smells, colours, the light hitting the water, school food, accents, languages, candy, fashion trends, favourite shops, television programmes, radio shows, pets, slang, popular local music groups, where we bought our LP records, our favourite cafés. Also knowledge of social norms and unwritten rules. My South African cultural iceberg is thus deep, but becomes shallower the longer I live in Sweden, because I lose the nuances of the system and deep culture as it changes over time.

I have a driver’s licence and teaching education in Hiberno English from Ireland, and have lived there. I was taught by Irish nuns in an Irish Catholic convent for 12 years, to the extent that my pronunciation of certain words was affected for a time. My father was Irish and I am a citizen. But my Irish cultural iceberg goes only partially below sea level. And the deeper knowledge I have is from living there.

I have been in Sweden for decades, speak the language, and will probably die and be buried here. My Swedish cultural iceberg is getting deeper and deeper the longer I live here, but I will never have a complete iceberg. I don’t have the inborn intense emotional attachment to the culture that a full iceberg requires. I will definitely never feel Swedish.

Americans often tend to identify closely with the culture of their ancestors, considering themselves Italian/Irish/Scandinavian even hundreds of years after their forefathers left the country in question.



I would guess that the parts of the cultural iceberg that are passed down when people settle in other countries become shallower and shallower over the generations, because people know less and less about the deep culture in the country from which their forebears originated. Immigrants from different countries usually settle in the same neighbourhoods as others of the same nationality, and pass the culture down. First deep culture, and then over generations, shallow culture. Ultimately it would be the surface culture of food, festivals, flags, national dress, songs and games, but not unspoken or unconscious rules, ideals regarding child-rearing, attitudes towards religion etc.

Ireland is way more secular these days than it was, and immigrants account for 20% of  – formerly very homogenous – Sweden’s population (the largest immigrant groups are from Syria and Iraq), so the cultural icebergs have changed somewhat since the mass emigration to the USA. Some immigrants to Sweden keep to themselves to the extent that their Swedish cultural iceberg is probably limited to knowledge of the flag – a veritable ice cube, so to speak. This happens in many cultures I imagine – people from all cultures live in bigger or smaller bubbles wherever you go, depending on how large the family is. I emigrated to Sweden alone and there were no South Africans here when I moved here, so I had to sink or seek shelter on the Swedish iceberg. It was harder, but also better for me, because I integrated quickly. I had no one to keep me in a South African bubble so I had to learn.

Living in a country is also different from visiting a country for a short time because then you have access to and understanding of the deeper parts of the cultural iceberg. Learning the language to some level is really vital for this because so much of the cultural iceberg resides in language, social norms and the system. The longer you live somewhere, the deeper into the iceberg you travel. I guess my Swedish iceberg will go deeper and deeper, as my South African iceberg will get shallower and shallower.

I guess if you stay in one country all your life, you will have one big iceberg, but people of mixed heritage or who have lived for a time in other countries and grown to know the culture will have several icebergs of different sizes. Sometimes I just wish I had one big iceberg,



Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

7 thoughts

  1. Wonderfully enlightening piece. Myself, I’m a UK mutt: (supposedly) equal parts English, Scots, Welch, and Irish. This I’ve verified several times. And the beat goes on.

  2. This is highly interesting. I had never heard about it and I should have because I have experienced so many different cultures. My family is Spanish but I was born in France. At home, we spoke French, but ate Spanish food. I then moved to England and embraced the culture for 7 years until we moved to Germany and that’s where I’ve been for the past 16 years. Even though I speak any language with a French accent, I do feel Spanish. But to a Spanish person, I am French. I am Spanish to a French person and I’m French to anyone else… I strongly believe from past experience that learning a language is the surest way to embrace a culture.

    I’m always skeptical when I hear American people claiming they are Irish and Italian and more. I believe that they really want to honour their ancestry. I wonder why there are not more Americans who embrace simply being Americans.

    I just finished reading Subgirl and her message was really spot on!

    I’m also thinking about the whole Hilaria Baldwin controversy. Just in case you haven’t heard it before: she has claimed for the past many years that she was a Spaniard. She does look like one and her accent sounded hispanic. When everything came out, I really couldn’t understand all the hate for what she did. She had fully embraced Spanish culture and she was celebrating it in her own way.

    Culture is something very complex indeed!

  3. Interesting thoughts on culture.

    I tend to say I’m American, of French-Canadian (Quebecois), German, & English heritage/descent.

    I was just American (with the modifier of German/English descent until my father discovered his true ancestry before he passed was of French-Canadian ancestry.)

    I personally feel (white, black) Americans aren’t truly native – we identify with our “native” countries. America is still very young, in colony terms, so there aren’t truly many multi-generational (white), families that could extensively identify as American. I would imagine Native (American) peoples to feel very differently to the masses of immigrants.

    It’s a unique concept. At what point does one’s ancestry become “native”? Also, how long does your family have to be somewhere to be “native”? Is it language? Anthropology? Ancestry? DNA? I’m sure there are as many definitions of localised culture as there are people in the world. ^_^

    1. Btw pardon my poor grammar, punctuation & erratic capitalisation – not having a great focus/pain/health day.

    2. A second note (this has really got me thinking!) It also, I imagine, cultural identification is diluted with the rise of globalisation/awareness of other cultures/travel/etc. (which you touch on with the idea of smaller multiple icebergs). When I was younger, I envied those with extensive cultural identity – a Taiwanese-American (1st generation) friend whose family immigrated whilst she was very young. Her family had strong cultural identity, and here I was, this euro-caucasion-white-mutt with knowledge only of my maternal ancestry- of which the majority were German & English immigrants of 1-3 generations back (so for myself, 2-4 generations) which didn’t feel very… culturally …unique? We had very few deeply held unique cultural experiences – beyond the surface capitalist experience of “xmas”, “easter”, “halloween”, etc. – all rituals created by companies to get you to buy more. All the religious heritage of the experience was overshadowed by the $$$. Nothing like the cultural dances, traditional clothing, food & celebrations held by my Taiwanese friend. There’s no one “white lower class midwestern poor American” identifier (aside from the stereotypes).

      Not to mention the sheer size of the landscape & cultural diversity of the American country. As Americans, the only single cultural identifier is that of immigrant so therein lies that wont to define oneself with one’s ancestry/heritage.

      Of course all this is explanation from the American-born viewpoint. I personally feel rather unmoored (and often unwelcome) by heritage & geography, so rather prefer to identify culturally by other definitions. I also work hard to have an understanding & use of global (english-speaking, I know a very small bit of French & German language, am learning some Japanese) cultures & being open to other “icebergs”. I don’t automatically assume one is xian/American/caucasian as default. I am always fascinated by & mindful of learning of other religious/cultural/regional ideals, practices & histories. (For example – I don’t send xmas cards – I send winter seasonal cards; I have dozens of friends all over thr globe of all faiths/cultures/religious observance. It’s presumptuous to wish, for example, a Muslim friend in Indonesia a “merry xmas” during December in the US.)

      sorry, this subject has got me off the rails, it’s really triggered a lot of thought!

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