In the iceberg exercise, you saw how certain aspects or features of culture are visible-- they show up in people's behavior--while many other aspects of culture are invisible, existing only in the realms of thought, feeling, and belief. The examples in this exercise show how these two realms, the visible and the hidden, are related to each other, how the values and beliefs you cannot see affect behavior. To understand where behavior comes from - to understand why people behave the way they do - requires learning about values and beliefs. While the behavior of people from another culture may seem strange to you, it probably makes sense to them. The reason any behavior makes sense is simply because it is consistent with what a given person believes in or holds dear. Conversely, when we say that what someone has done "makes no sense," what we mean is that that action contradicts what we know that person feels or wants.

In the exercise below, match the behavior to the value or belief that it exemplifies.

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Match the items.

The task is to match the lettered items with the correct numbered items. Appearing below is a list of lettered items. Following that is a list of numbered items. Each numbered item is followed by a drop-down. Select the letter in the drop down that best matches the numbered item with the lettered alternatives.

a. Importance of family

b. External Control

c. Directness

d. Self-reliance

e. Informality

f. Respect for age


 Culture is but one category or dimension of human behavior, and it is therefore important to see it in relation to the other two dimensions: the universal and the personal. The three can be distinguished as follows:

Two important points to remember:

  1. Because of universal behavior, not everything about people in a new culture is going to be different; some of what you already know about human behavior is going to apply in your host country.
  2. Because of personal behavior, not everything you learn about your host culture is going to apply in equal measure, or at all, to every individual in that culture.

In the next exercise the red cards describe various behaviors. Please sort them into what you believe is the appropriate category, i.e., universal, cultural, or personal.


alternative accessible content Click the red card deck to view a card. Drag the card from the bottom to the correct category.
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We all believe that we observe reality, things as they are, but what actually happens is that the mind interprets what the eyes see and gives it meaning. It is only at this point, when meaning is assigned, that we can truly say we have seen something. In other words, what we see is as much in the mind as it is in reality. If you consider that the mind of a person from one culture is going to be different in many ways from the mind of a person from another culture, then you have the explanation for that most fundamental of all cross-cultural problems: the fact that two people look upon the same reality, the same example of behavior, and see two entirely different things.

Any behavior observed across the cultural divide, therefore, has to be interpreted in two ways:

Only when these two meanings are the same do we have successful communication, successful in the sense that the meaning that was intended by the doer is the one that was understood by the observer.

What do you see in the image below?

Is it a white vase or two faces? How do you perceive it?


Cultural Differences

In this exercise the red cards describe a series of behaviors. Sort these into categories of "Probably acceptable" or "Probably not acceptable."


alternative accessible content Click the red card deck to view a card. Drag the card from the bottom to the correct category.
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Language can be both a powerful tool and a difficult barrier. Meaning is expressed not only by the actual words we say but also through our tone of voice and body language.
The percent of meaning expressed is as follows:

Content (words)


Tone of voice`


Body Language


Things get complicated when a certain tone of voice or body language has a specific meaning in one cultural setting and a totally different meaning in another. Some examples:

Experience #1

I was living in Monterrey, Mexico working with underprivileged kids in an after-school type program. One afternoon while I was working, one of the students asked me if it was okay to move to a different activity. I said yes, but I was working with someone else at the time and apparently the student didn't hear me. The student asked once again, to which I replied with a very clear "OK" hand sign. Immediately, the student ran to another teacher and began recounting the story. The other teacher came over to ask me what had happened. I recounted the seemingly harmless events, and she promptly informed me that the child thought I had called him an a-hole for asking his question too many times. A very sincere apology ensued, and to this day, I rarely use the OK hand sign. Or at least not around impressionable children. 

Experience #2

This past summer I went to Japan for 2 weeks to visit a friend. Excited for my first trip to Asia, I knew that communicating would be a struggle but that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Though overall I had a wonderful experience, I could have never imagined how lonely I would feel. As this was my first time visiting a country for more than 4 days where I could not communicate, I was woefully unprepared for the challenges this would pose. I stared at menus, subway maps, and advertisements feeling flat out illiterate. I had never felt so alien and out of touch and as a result struggled with these emotions. While my friend, who was working full time, did his best to help me, the fact was that there was no substitute for knowing the language.