Identity Iceberg

A Writing Prompt

Since arriving in The Netherlands, I’ve worked with a moderate amount of success to learn the language and customs of my beloved host country. I am reminded daily that after five years I’ve only scratched the surface of understanding of my Dutch neighbors. Sure, I now prefer bicycling to driving, I’ve adopted stroopwafels as part of my morning routine and I enjoy creating gezellig evenings with candles throughout the house all winter long. But there is always the lingering awareness that we, my neighbors and I, don’t entirely “get” each other.

 In the 1970s, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall created the Cultural Iceberg as a way to differentiate between what we see in culture vs. the harder to recognize things such as ideas, values, priorities and preferences. It’s an apt analogy because only a tiny fraction of an iceberg is visible in above the surface of the water while as much as 90% of the iceberg is hidden beneath the surface. 

In the cultural metaphor, what is revealed above the surface are things like clothes, food, language and literature, appearance, holidays and the arts. Under the waterline are many more important aspects of culture that are often harder to grasp, like remembering to congratulate my neighbor on the occasion of her husband’s birthday!

The iceberg model is also a really cool way (see what I did there?) to think about how people present themselves to the world, especially queer folk, many of whom must carefully choose and construct a publicly “acceptable” identity. 

You are invited to fill in the downloadable iceberg with what the world sees (or thinks it sees) when beholding you. Label the section under the water with what you know is beneath the surface. Be as specific as you can about the qualities that make you YOU, but are not necessarily observable by others.

After labeling, have some fun painting the seascape with watercolors.