What Metaphors Can Tell Us About Culture


Culture is an abstract concept that is difficult to grasp. Using a metaphor can help reduce its complexity in some way. A metaphor is a figure of speech that implicitly compares an object or concept to another. In this way, some of the connotations and associations of one thing are transferred to another.



The way we perceive culture


The cultural glasses is a metaphor created by the anthropologist Franz Boas. It suggests that all humans perceive the world through the lens of their own culture, and judge it according to their culturally acquired norms. Our perception is biased due to our cultural background and we therefore do not experience the world as it is - because there is no objective way of knowing it. Instead, we select, evaluate and organise the stimuli coming from our environment based on the information stored in our brain and interpret each piece of information accordingly. This biased perception may lead to the misinterpretation of an unfamiliar situation.




Metaphors to describe the different layers of a culture


There are various definitions of the concept of culture. Firstly, it can refer to art and music. But culture can also be defined as "a particular society or civilization, especially considered in relation to its beliefs, way of life, or art” (Collins). This definition shows that the term “culture” often refers to the belief system and lifestyles of the inhabitants of a particular society or country.


Edward T. Hall’s iceberg metaphor is inspired by the fact that an iceberg consists of a visible part above the waterline and an invisible part that is hidden below the surface of the water. This analogy can be applied to the concept of culture because it has also visible or tangible and invisible or intangible components: We can perceive some cultural factors with the five senses, such as clothing, language, music and food, while it is more difficult to interpret the aspects that have to do with values, attitudes and ideology.


The metaphor is widely used although it has also come under criticism for the following reasons: Firstly, it does not reflect the fact that all “visible” aspects of a culture also contain elements that are not completely obvious and comprehensible to somebody who is not familiar with the culture. In addition, the interrelations between the visible and invisible parts of the iceberg are not shown and the dynamic nature of culture is not clearly reflected.


On the other hand, an iceberg – like a culture - is subject to changes due to outside influences. For example, on the surface of the iceberg, warm air melts snow and ice into pools that trickle through the iceberg and widen its cracks. At the same time, warm water hollows out its edges causing chunks of ice to break off. After melting and refreezing, the iceberg has changed in some way.




The onion metaphor developed by Geert Hofstede, a well-known researcher on cultural diversity, also describes the different levels of culture. Culture is visualized as an onion that consists of different layers and in order to understand it, it is necessary to peel off layer after layer. The outer layer referrring to symbols (words, gestures, objects) is immediately visible, while the other layers are hidden. The inner core is the layer that is most difficult to understand because it refers to values.


Cultures are neither uniform nor static


Modern societies are complex systems. A country is characterised by the differences between its urban and rural areas and its regions, ethnic groups, religious communities, social groups and subcultures. Furthermore, societies are not static because they undergo constant changes and cultural hybridization occurs due to migratory movements, trade and, more recently, globalization.


According to Jürgen Bolten, national cultures are not hermetically sealed containers because they interact with other cultures and mutually influence each other. This is particularly true for the border regions of country, for example between Germany and its neighbouring countries, where cultural hybridization takes place. Metaphorically speaking, cultures are "frayed" at their edges.




The sand mountain metaphor developed by Jürgen Bolten uses the analogy of a sand dune to describe the different types of rules that are observed in a culture and their likelihood to change. The layers of the sand dune stand for the “can” rules, “should” rules and “must” rules.


The "can" rules of a culture are the least rigid and most diverse rules, for example teen slang or fashion trends. They can be compared to the wind-swept part of a dune that keeps shifting. The “should” rules represent a scope of action for the various groups that make up a culture and can be compared to the surface of a sand dune, which shifts over time. These rules are regarded as "normal" and "sensible", such as the rules of communication.


The “must-rules” of a culture are binding for its members, such as laws and moral codes. They are comparable to the base of the sand dune.




Metaphors that describe multicultural societies


According to the melting pot metaphor, the different ethnic groups that make up a culture amalgamate to form a new culture. This leads to their homogenization and, consequently, the immigrants' cultures of origin disappear. This metaphor was frequently used for the USA.



On the other hand, the metaphor of the salad bowl visualizes how individuals from different cultures become part of a multicultural society while maintaining their distinct identities.



Similarly, the mosaic is a metaphor that visualizes the heterogeneity of the different ethnic and cultural groups that co-exist within a multicultural society.




The kaleidoscope is another metaphor to depict the multifaceted aspects of a multicultural society. Like the pieces of a kaleidoscope, these aspects are constantly rearranged creating new patterns in this way. 




Can you come up with a metaphor that visualizes what the concept of culture means to you?


Here are some of my ideas:



In all multicultural societies, different degrees of cultural blending take place. I propose the analogy of the coloured pencils for this: In these societies, people belonging to different ethnic and regional cultures live side by side. Some members of a multicultural society keep themselves apart and maintain their particular culture (lifestyle and traditions), while other members of these different groups “blend” to varying degrees. Depending on the original culture and the amount of features of the other culture(s) that are adopted, a new “shade” (culture and identity) is created, leading to a wide range of different shades. A new picture of the society is drawn using these pencils. This picture is continually modified and redrawn according to the new shades that are created.


Deciphering a culture


You need to know the meaning of its codes to find your way around a culture.




Finnish or Greek flag? Or the signposting of hiking trails? The meaning of a symbol depends on its context, which can be physical, cultural, historical, professional ...






In a TED Talk, Wendi Adair, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada, comments on a number of cultural metaphors and also comes up with her own metaphor.


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