in China

Digging into My Cultural Iceberg

In my last post, I referred to this piece by kindergarten teacher Christina Shunnarah, who works with students from all over the world.  She describes culture as an iceberg, with a small part visible, and the vast majority hidden under the surface.

Image Source

This is one of my favorite excerpts from her excellent essay:

Developing cultural competence is a process of inner growth. In order for me to be as effective as possible with the students I work with, I must continuously engage in a process of self-reflection. To be able to know others, especially diverse others, one must know the self. So the growth of a culturally competent educator starts there. We must look within for a deeper understanding of who we are before we can adequately address the needs of our students.

This investigation should include our core beliefs, hidden biases and our religious perspectives. Developing cultural competence is also a process that comes with experience and engagement, and with sometimes painful lessons that highlight our limitations and prejudices. To learn about the backgrounds of the students in my class takes time and effort; it involves reading about their countries of origin, visiting their homes and meeting family members, connecting with parents, developing relationships with community members and organizations, and going to cultural and religious festivals. By learning about my students’ lives outside the classroom, I am more prepared to work with them in the classroom. [more]

I also find that, in order for me to be as effective as possible, I must continually engage in a process of self-reflection.  Through reading, reflecting, and (most awkwardly and perhaps most importantly) reacting inappropriately in situations in which I hadn’t realized my cultural tendencies were so different than those of the people around me, I have identified the following core beliefs that have shaped me (in no particular order).

(Ramit Sethi makes a similar point in this post about invisible scripts, and the 200+ comments are well worth reading!)

Note: This list is based on my own observations, and does not imply that one set of values or invisible scripts is better than another. I just see them as important and discussion-worthy, and I’d love to hear your own stories.

* Independence and Individualism. From a very young age, I wanted to do things my own way, and the people around me (parents, teachers, etc.) mostly supported these urges. In kindergarten, my mom recalls that I would wander around the classroom, looking at the pictures on the walls, while my classmates sat at their desks writing. Then, with about five minutes to go, I would sit down and write my story. My teacher let me do my thing, and praised me for the quality of my work. I doubt a Chinese kindergarten teacher would allow such a thing!

* Options. I think this is a product of my generation. We have always had so many options, for activities, schedules, classes, assignments, and so much more. And expect limitless options, for jobs, working styles, food, etc.

* Fusion. I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, with classmates from all over the world. We ate food from many continents. My mom is Christian and my dad is Jewish, and we celebrated holidays from both traditions, as well as many others.

* November and December are holiday months that punctuate the year. In China people work straight through November, December, and January, and the real holiday is not until February.

* Stubbornness. This is something I’ve tried hard to mitigate, but it will probably always be there. I’m a Capricorn.

* Smile. I like to smile. I am a happy girl. This is sometimes misinterpreted as “not serious” or too flirtatious.

* Directness. We Americans tend to get straight to the point. This, compounded with the unsophisticated sentence patterns that come with limited language proficiency, sometimes makes me seem rude. Sometimes a smile helps, but that can be misinterpreted too. The best solution I’ve found is to use an interpreter, who can sugar-coat statements into more culturally appropriate forms.

What about you? What are your core beliefs, and how do they shape your interactions with other people? Has being more conscious of these traits helped you be more effective in your communications?  What else would you add?

Write a Comment


  1. Ha – can’t believe your teacher let you wander around the classroom!

    The directness of my own demeanor sometimes gets me into trouble, too. Have you read about high context versus low context cultures? Or about power distance?

    Americans are low power distance — we don’t revere leaders in the way that other cultures do. Similarly, the highest context culture is Japanese, and lowest is Swiss German. Americans tend to be lower context, meaning, that our WORDS speak the loudest…whereas in high context cultures, one person might SAY one thing, but the context is not spoken.

    In the US, there are variations. The South is higher context than the northeast, I’ve observed. :)

    Love this stuff!

  2. Yes, I’ve read the work of anthropologist Edward Hall. He coined the terms “high-context” and “low-context,” right?

    China is definitely a high-context culture, and I will always be an outsider. Building context with people, by getting to know them better, does help. I think that very explicit and detailed emails are a hallmark of low-context culture, and long dinners with lots of toasts and baijiu (nasty and strong Chinese liquor made of rice) are a hallmark of high-context culture.

    Have you read The Geography of Thought? It’s excellent, and describes these differences in fascinating and controversial detail.

    I’m also reminded of a comment that American journalist Ann Danylkiw left on the now-hidden blog I created last year for our British corporate training company. Her website is and here’s her comment:

    Let me say right off that I’m a journalist and an American. But even before I was a journalist, when I was in foreign countries doing interviews for field studies I noticed something. I think that people in foreign countries expect Americans to be inappropriate and (kindly) bold. I sometimes wonder if I get away with asking incredibly direct, bordering-on-inappropriate questions, without any build up whatsoever. By “get away with” I mean that my questions get answered. Usually people laugh a bit first, and then there’s this look of amusement, and then I get answer that’s almost as direct– quite the feat when asking a question of Arab-male culture, I think.

    I’ll dig up some bits from that blog and re-post them here.

    Thanks, as always, for your fun and thought-provoking comments :)

Enjoy this article?

Sign up to get a behind-the-scenes peek at what I'm writing, as well as occasional updates, tips, and more.