The Iceberg

Students will identify features that all cultures share and decide which are visible and which are invisible.

Culture has been compared to an iceberg. Just as an iceberg has a visible section (one-ninth of it) above the waterline and a larger, invisible section below the waterline, culture has some aspects that you can observe and others that you can only imagine or intuit. Like an iceberg, the part of culture that is visible (observable behavior) is only a small part of a much bigger whole.


  • Students will identify features that all cultures have in common.
  • Students will understand that culture includes visible and invisible features.


  1. Draw a large iceberg floating in the sea on the board. Ask students: What do you know about icebergs? Emphasize the fact that most of the iceberg is hidden from view.
  2. Ask students to look over the "Features of Culture" handout (link above). Explain that this list presents some of the features all cultures have in common. Pictures of people involved in everyday activities in various parts of the world will help you illustrate this idea.
  3. Ask students to identify those features from the list that they can see in the behavior of people and those that are invisible. As students share their ideas, record them above or below the waterline on your iceberg drawing.
  4. Point out that there is a relationship between those items that appear above the waterline and those that appear below it. In most cases, the invisible aspects of culture influence or cause the visible ones. Religious beliefs, for example, are "seen" in certain holiday customs, and notions of modesty influence styles of dress. Ask students to find other examples of this from the iceberg representation of culture.


Use the following questions to help students understand how the "Features of Culture" can be used to enhance their understanding of other cultures.

  1. Does it make sense to compare culture to an iceberg? Can you think of other things to which the visible and invisible features of culture can be compared?
  2. A Peace Corps Volunteer serving as a teacher in Mongolia had this to say about some photographs she sent to a group of students in the United States.

    Mongolians are very serious and composed in their expressions. In the city, this is beginning to change slightly. You'll see a number of my students smiling. But this is not traditional. When I first came here, my friends asked me why Americans smile so much. They felt that Americans smile even at people they don't like and that this was quite insincere. —Lisa Buchwalder

    What does this tell you about the visible and invisible features of culture? Does it explain why people from different cultures sometimes misunderstand each other?
  3. Can you match this description of American and Mongolian behaviors with any of the items on your list of cultural features?
  4. How can a list such as "Features of Culture" help you understand differences among people? (Possible answer: Differences may seem less strange or unusual when we understand them as variations on fundamental characteristics that all cultures have in common.) 


  1. If your class is corresponding with a Peace Corps Volunteer through the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program, share the "Features of Culture" list with your Volunteer and ask him or her to describe some of the visible and invisible features of the host country.
  2. Revisit the first activity in this section. Ask students to match items from the worksheet "Everyone Has a Culture—Everyone is Different" (link above) with items on the "Features of Culture" list.  

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