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Welcome back to the third part of our blog series.

In our second blog, we left you with the steps you can take to become an interculturally mature person. 

In this edition, we introduce a few concepts from the intercultural theory that will help you understand how intercultural training works and what pitfalls to avoid when looking for a training provider. 

What do people think of when asked to define ‘culture’?

The image or model most widely used in intercultural training, you may have seen it before on social media posts, to visualize culture is the iceberg. However, the image of an iceberg, with a visible tip and an invisible foot is somewhat problematic, as the metaphor implies that culture is an actual thing. In reality, culture is a process, a consensus that is the result of people living in a society and agreeing on certain values, beliefs, sharing of language, traditions, and so on.

There are many attempts to define culture, it is a popular exercise during training sessions to ask learners, “What does culture mean for you?” As a practical way to make this abstract concept visible, the iceberg model is useful. It works as a metaphor but should not be taken as a definition or used in isolation to describe culture.

Can we take a deeper dive into the concept of ‘culture’?

Sure we can! In intercultural research, there is no generally agreed upon definition but there are myriad attempts to come to terms with the concept, this might explain why the pioneers of intercultural research and training came up with simple models that allowed people to classify different behaviours of different people in different cultures.

From this approach, a popular “definition” came about, which postulated that culture is a set of shared characteristics and knowledge of groups of people consisting of language, religion, cuisine, music, arts and social behaviours. However, defining culture in this way does not help us understand why people behave in certain ways because behaviour is also as a result of culture as well as being the reason for culture.

Why do we even have to define culture then? 

Well, reflecting on the term helps you to understand yourself as a cultural being in the first place. It helps you to know where your values, opinions, preferences, ideas, ways of working and making social connections etc. come from.

We will now look at how defining culture has been done in the past and look at a better way of doing this for the future., a way that actually fosters one’s growth into becoming an interculturally mature individual.

What are the more popular ways of looking at ‘culture’? 

Currently, the intercultural profession is split between two major schools of thought. One takes a macro-analytical approach while the other takes a micro-analytical approach. The former is promoted by Geert Hofstede’s Model of Cultural Dimensionsor Edward T. Hall’s model which both have their origins in the 1960s. The latter is supported by Clifford Geertz in his book; “The Interpretation of Cultures”  

Which is the best approach to choose out of these two?

Neither is the answer. The macro-analytical approach although deceptively easy to use in training sessions because it provides such an overview and with generalisations that people can easily memorize and categorize as aspects of culture. However, as the data used was collected between 1968 and 1972 and from a small sample of IBM employees in their respective countries it really did not provide a wide enough spread. Relying on this approach alone in defining culture can lead to stereotyping, rejection and judgement.

The second, micro-analytical approach is not as straightforward to understand. It uses critical incidents, mini-case studies or situational stories that have a problem which requires solving through multiple choice type quizzes, where you have the correct answer, a partially correct answer and the wrong answer. These are helpful to use in exercises but as a basis for understanding, culture can actually have a detrimental effect as it sets up intercultural exchanges as being problematic or difficult.

Below we provide you with lists of dangers of the two approaches:


  • Cultures are not confined by national (political) boundaries
  • Attributing values to a (national) culture is judgmental
  • Abstract values are unsuitable to account for the behaviour of an individual
  • Abstract values do not give any information about the everyday behaviour of individuals who live in a culture
  • Abstract values do not give any information about intercultural encounters
  • The identification and definition of dimensions are attributed to a culture from the outside and strengthen ethnocentric points of view
  • The understanding of culture is based on a false assumption: cultures are not containers, but products of societies and sub-groups of societies
  • Dimensions of culture are descriptive in nature and offer no explanation
  • Dimensions of culture prescribe the description of a culture and hold no psychological reality because culture becomes virtual
  • The data used by Hofstede stems from 1968 and 1972 and is related to country-specific characteristics of the respective IBM culture
  • Cultural change processes that took place in the past 40-50 years have not been taken into account and have led to false assumptions that cause misunderstandings and errors when it comes to many Asian cultures.


  • Intercultural encounters have a right and a wrong way of communicating
  • Intercultural communication is always critical and prone to failure
  • The learning process is very complex and difficult because there is always the risk of intercultural blunders
  • The approaches foster an ethnocentric view because cultures are constantly compared against each other
  • There are right and wrong ways of doing things and there are consequences if communication goes wrong
  • Fine-grained approaches make learning difficult because they are also reductive when used in training
  • There is no acquisition of cognitive, affective, and behavioural flexibility because the thinking is steered into a ‘me versus the others’ direction

The lists above are non-exhaustive and should, we hope, provide you with food for thought rather than absolute truth.

How can culture be better defined?

The answer we propose is that culture is the cognitive system which enables us to generate much of our behaviour. The human capacity for culture has resulted in enormous diversity at the population level. The diversity of cultures were and are the outcome of the way in which kin-based human communities reproduce themselves over generations, the splitting and diverging of these communities being influenced by ecological and geographical factors.

Where we have seen that trying to define culture can be problematic and not such a straightforward task, the key thing to understand is that the first step towards progression starts with the individual. There needs to be a move towards the development of self-awareness.

To further illustrate this, there was a study on the effect of perspective-taking, which is so often propagated in intercultural training, carried out amongst 2, 734 participants by Catapana, Tomal and Tucker from Stanford and Northwestern  Universities. The aim of the study was to try to get people of opposing views to be able to see the matter from the perspective of the person with the contrary viewpoint. In most cases, the exercise did not work and participants actually became even more entrenched in their positions. In simple terms, asking people to see things from the other side will not engender acceptance, quite the opposite actually.

Certainly, our recommendation and the most effective way to prepare for accepting alternative viewpoints comes back around to self-awareness.

This is your baseline. When you understand your own preferences, attitudes and behaviours and can even recognise the origins of them you are then best positioned to build upon this and develop yourself and your intercultural maturity.

To discover more about how to take the next steps towards your own intercultural maturity contact either Alex on: or Abby on:

If you would like to find out more about what we are doing at Bilingual Solutions and WorldWork then get in touch with us at: or 


Credit Images: 

  • Photo By Amrita Ghanty On Unsplash
  • Photo by Derek Oyen on Unsplash
  • Photo by Stephane Yaich on Unsplash