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Visible Versus Invisible Parts of Culture
Culture is who we are. It is our way of being and doing. Culture encompasses our beliefs, values, and behaviors. In the Cultural Iceberg Theory, anthropologist Edward T. Hall reasoned that culture is like an iceberg. Some aspects are visible, above the water, which we call visible expressions of culture. Like culture, only about 10% of an iceberg floats above the water. There is also a larger, covert portion that is hidden beneath the surface, which we call invisible expressions of culture.
You see visible expressions of culture every day, like holidays, dress, and food. But invisible expressions of culture are much harder to identify. Like a fish in water, culture surrounds you. It is undetectable to those who are in it.
Invisible expressions of culture are the invisible building blocks of culture. You perform and observe these expressions of culture without knowing it. Examples of invisible expressions of culture are our beliefs, behaviors, social norms and expectations, views about money, time, leisure, and personal space; leadership; family structure; power; gender, and more. They run nearly every aspect of our lives from birth onward, yet they’re very difficult to see. Most people go their whole lives not knowing that the way they live is cultural.
When you teach students to see their culture, starting with the Fishbowl Activity, they will understand themselves better. They will learn that their perspective is not the only one. They will learn that there is no one correct way to live. They will be better equipped to navigate life without the limiting perspective of one culture.
The Fishbowl Activity
Start the lesson by asking your students to imagine they are a fish in a fishbowl. Have students imagine what their fish looks like, and what it is called, and try to get inside the mind of the fish. How does the fish see the world? What does it know and not know? The fishbowl is a metaphor for understanding culture is a fishbowl.
Ask what is in their fish’s fishbowl? Explain these are visible aspects of culture. Brainstorm the parts of culture we can see, like our food, clothing, and hand gestures. The stuff in the fishbowl, like the rocks, the plants, the toys, and the fish food, are visible parts of culture. Visible aspects of a culture are the tangible things that a culture shares, like food, clothing, and gestures. Oftentimes, visible aspects of culture have a deeper connection to invisible aspects of culture. Ask your students about their visible aspects of culture. How do they dress? What do they eat? What objects do they have in their home? Does it represent something?
Then, ask about the water. Can a fish see the water? Does it even know it’s there? How would the fish’s life change if it moved fishbowls? Water (its saltiness, temp, and pH) are the invisible part of the culture. Social norms, politeness, rules, beliefs, and expectations. Brainstorm some in your culture(s).
You cannot see the invisible aspects of culture, but they affect your life in a big way. TO find out if something is an invisible aspect of culture, ask yourself, do all humans do this the same way? If I went to another country or state, would they have the exact same belief I do?
Moral: The fish has never known life outside of the water, just like we’re surrounded by our culture starting the day we’re born. Just like the fish sees the world through the water, we always look through our culture to understand the world. We’re shaped by our experiences in our fishbowl. But we can talk to people from other cultures and try to see life from another fishbowl.
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