The reality of the Cultural Iceberg: A comparison between American and Italian cultures

BABa in Bulgaria

Having grown up in Italy and then moving to the United States, some of the biggest differences between the two countries and their cultures were not so obvious to me. The cultures of both countries have served key roles in my personal development and my understanding of how the world works.  When visiting my Neapolitan friend over the summer in Luxembourg last year, I complemented him on his pure heritage. He laughed at my ignorance, “Yes, I’m proud to be an Italian, but everyone is always ‘pulling your leg’ with ‘pasta, pizza, and cappuccino!’ These are stereotypes one could not escape.” Once, he said this, it was probably when I realized for the first time the “tip of the cultural iceberg” of Gary Weaver and his brilliant parallel between the invisible mountain of ice and the lack of deep understanding in our perceptions of cultural differences.

Being from the United States one tends to identify as a “kind of mutt” – you have a father from ‘there,’ and a mother from ‘here;’ or you were born in one place, but raised somewhere else.  We identify as ‘Americans,’ but deal with a constant ‘identity crisis,’ which is highlighted when asked, “Where are you from?” America is indeed a mixing pot, and New York City is probably the epicenter of it all.

There is a lot to compare between the culture of the New York City and the culture of the Italian state – for example the Italian immigrants, the Italian architecture of some of the buildings, the Italian art in the numerous art museums, and last, but not least – the Italian food.  Like most things that require deep understanding, there is more to it than the eye can see on the surface of things.  The Cultural Iceberg Theory explains a different way of observing, analyzing and thinking and provokes the reader, the viewer, the researcher or simply the outsider to take a deeper look at any different culture then his own and to attempt to pass and overcome the obvious stereotypes and perceptions.

For example, using the metaphor of an iceberg, one should picture the unknown proportions of an iceberg and how much one could see and how much one actually can’t see. Above the water the tiny tip of the iceberg serves as the perceived characteristics of a culture while below the water, the unseen iceberg, serves to show that there is a much larger picture of a covered with water ice mountain.  For example, characteristics that represent the ‘above the iceberg reality’ are language, art, religion, music, dance, sports, national costumes, food; while ‘below the iceberg’ would be the place for the culture’s core values such as ideas about family, education, history, or cosmology, and concepts of beauty, motivation to work, decision making processes, physical space, friendship, love, murder, or handling of emotions.  Just like in my case, the differences couldn’t be less obvious for two countries experiencing often so much misunderstanding of each other, such as the United States and Italy.

As the world is becoming more global, these misconceptions are also becoming more prevalent, as most countries are adopting and customizing food and culture from other countries in attempts to adapt to a more global society.  However, this way of thinking has become the basis of what tends to define American culture – exactly like American-Chinese food is completely different from traditional Chinese food, so is the American-Italian food from traditional Italian food.  And Italy is clearly more than its food. There are habits that diverge Italians from Americans such as splitting the bill vs. separating checks, eating three course meals vs. just one dish, or greeting people with kisses vs. handshakes.

As an illustration, I remember the girls I would study abroad with would be extremely “creeped out” by the forwardness of Italian men. Their spontaneous ‘romanticism,’ which was a gesture that has been completely condemned through prudency in American culture, was compelled for misunderstanding.

Culture and habits are passed from generation to generation, and develop throughout history based on lessons and influences from parents, teachers, laws, and social norms. Unless one is fully submerged into a culture, it’s difficult to understand these core values from just a few days in a country.  One tends to first experience “culture shock” – a personal disorientation through the exposure of a new custom or culture. Eventually though, with enough time, these core values are understood through observation, experience, and a bit of reflection. Just like an American might be astonished by the fact that a 30-year-old Italian is still living with his parents, what comes off as bizarre to us, is completely normal to them.

Understanding and growing from the experience starts with recognizing our own personal icebergs – what we portray through our clothing, how we act, and what we say vs. how it reflects on our core values, our prejudices, or our aspirations. Then follows, accepting discrepancy and acknowledging another person’s core values. And finally, it requires meditating and enjoying one’s growth.  The influence of culture on the elements of communication need to be explicitly explored rather than taken for granted or ignored.

So, yes, it is difficult for people from two different worlds, such as the United States and Italy to understand each other, but it is not impossible.  Let us look harder for the nine-tenths of the culture which is hidden from the view and may be there in the valleys of the ‘deep culture’ we will find the things that unite us, not the things that divide us.  It is up to us not to build “Walls” between our customs and cultures, but instead to build “Bridges” on our common values, connecting people and ideas.

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