Going Below The Surface In International Assignments


We often use the analogy of an iceberg when we talk about culture. The proverbial “tip of the iceberg” symbolizes the observable behaviors in a culture as well as the things you can see, hear and touch, such as the way people dress, the language they use, the food they eat, the music they play, the signs of affection they give, etc.

However, as the most dangerous part of the iceberg is the 90 percent that is below the surface and cannot be seen, such is the case with culture as well. The norms (which are rules for behavior in specific situations) and values (which identify what should be judged as appropriate, good or bad) of any given culture are below the surface and are not readily observable. Not understanding the unobservable is what is problematic for expatriates when dealing in intercultural situations.   

For instance, imagine starting work in a new country and being frustrated by some of your office mates’ behavior. You might begin to suspect that your new colleagues are not cooperative, or are withholding valuable information from you, or that they lack initiative. These misconceptions could stem from preferences gaps between you and your new colleagues in the cooperative-competitive, private-public, and control-constraint continua. These preferences do not always manifest in obvious ways, meaning they account for the “below the surface” behavioral norms that can thwart effective work among colleagues.

Building cultural competence in preparation for an international assignment must go beyond the observable “tip of the iceberg” to help individuals understand the values, behavior and beliefs of the other culture and ensure successful global interactions.