Culture Analogies

We have many analogies to help us understand culture better. Here are some of the most popular.

Culture Post.001

Like an onion has many layers, so does the concept we call culture.

Culture Post.002

Like an onion, we can easily see the outer layer – things like customs, language, dress, music, food, and some behavior.

Culture Post.003

But peel away some of the layers and it begins to reveal the values, beliefs, and attitudes that underlie those behaviors and customs. If you are not careful when peeling away those layers, it could lead to tears, just like when you carelessly peel an onion or use a dull knife to slice it.

Another analogy is that culture is like an iceberg.

Iceberg TLA.001

What you see above the water is only a tiny fraction of the whole iceberg.

fish tla.001

Just like when you first encounter a new culture, whether it is visiting another place (and it could simply be another region in your own country), or whether you are meeting a new person from a culture different from yours, you can see behavior, and clothes, and such things. But those things don’t reveal the whole person. For example, you and a friend of yours from another culture have so much in common, you have become the best of friends and plan to go to the same university. You know your friend wants to be a teacher, but his parents want him to be a financial analyst, so he applies to the business program to become a financial analyst. You think he is crazy because even if your parents told you to go to school for something else, you would follow your own heart and not listen to them. Understanding your friend’s culture can help you understand that in his eyes, parents must be obeyed and his own desires always take a second place to what his parents want for him.

iceberg base.001

It can take many years to get to know a culture or a person well enough to understand some of these things. These are the kinds of things that, if you are not careful, can lead to frustration with a culture or a person from another culture. You don’t want to run into an iceberg with a ship, so if you were the captain, you would be monitoring the obstacles under the sea as well as what’s above the water. In the same way, as a person navigating new cultures and friendships, keep an eye open for those moments when something doesn’t make sense. What could it be (that part hiding under the surface) that is causing certain behaviors or actions?

This leads to another analogy. I like this one best because it seems that this analogy gives us more hope to becoming more culturally adept! The analogy? Culture is like a computer program.


If you think of people like computers, then culture is the way we get programmed.

sandra typing pc

Imagine if all your life,  you had only used a PC computer with Microsoft Office— Word- Powerpoint- Excel. Things go swimmingly.  (My animation skills are not so good, but you get the point, right?) Then one day you sat down at a Mac— running iWorks — Pages- Keynote- and Numbers.

sandra typing mac gif

Of course not everything you know about PCs is going to work on a Mac— so you get frustrated— maybe like me you get mad!— but you can’t get mad at the computer— it’s just programmed differently and you don’t have the skills yet to use it right.  The same is true when interacting with others who have different religions, different ethnicities, different behaviors and values and attitudes. When something goes wrong, the problem may not be with them— and it may not be with you— the problem could be just that you don’t understand each other yet— and you may not have the skills just yet to get to know each other—because in our programming- we often think our way of life is the only right way or the only way that makes sense. Have you ever asked a Mac user to switch to a PC? or vice versa? Loyalties. We have them for more than just brands!

But here’s the reason I like this analogy best– remember when computers that spoke different languages didn’t get along at all? But now look at how I can use Microsoft on my Mac, we can share documents in all kinds of ways across oceans. Computer programmers just had to come up with ways to translate code, and they upgraded software to be more compatible all around. We can do the same thing with our brains! Education and knowledge are our upgrades. Have you upgraded lately?

Culture TLA.008

Culture Analogies Challenge

Choose a culture analogy (or make up your own) and think about ways you could teach peace using that analogy.




About the Author
Lori Michele Kelley

Lori has Master’s degree in TESL and has taught English and Intercultural Communication in the United States, Turkey, South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand. She also develops and conducts teacher development workshops for both pre- and in-service teachers. Riding pillion on backroads in the tropics and wherever else there are good roadside coffee shops is one of her favorite things to do. She’s also quite fond of the water and made her husband promise they could live on a houseboat someday.

Leave a Reply