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 people perceive the world through the lens of their own culture and judge it according to their culturally acquired norms. Our perception is biased by 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 stimuli from our environment based on information stored in our brains and interpret each piece of information accordingly. This biased perception can lead us to misinterpret an unfamiliar situation.


Metaphors to describe the different layers of a culture


There are several definitions of culture. On the one hand, culture can refer to art and music. But culture can also be defined as "a particular society or civilisation, especially in terms of its beliefs, way of life or art" (Collins). This definition shows that the term 'culture' often refers to the belief system and lifestyle 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 hidden beneath the surface. This analogy can be applied to the concept of culture because it also has 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 those aspects that have to do with values, attitudes and ideology.

The metaphor is widely used, although it has also been criticised for the following reasons: Firstly, it does not reflect the fact that all 'visible' aspects of a culture contain elements that are not entirely obvious and comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the culture. In addition, the interrelationships 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 change due to external influences. For example, warm air on the iceberg's surface melts snow and ice into puddles that trickle through the iceberg, widening its cracks. At the same time, warm water hollows out the edges of the iceberg, 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 visualised as an onion made up of different layers, and to understand it it is necessary to peel away layer after layer. The outer layer, which refers to symbols (words, gestures, objects), is immediately visible, while the other layers are hidden. The inner core is the most difficult layer to understand because it refers to values.

Cultures are neither uniform nor static


Modern societies are complex systems. A country is characterised by differences between its urban and rural areas and regions, ethnic groups, religious communities, social groups and subcultures. Moreover, societies are not static, as they are subject to constant change and cultural hybridisation as a result of migration, trade and, more recently, globalisation.

According to Jürgen Bolten, national cultures are not hermetically sealed containers because they interact with other cultures and influence each other. This is particularly true in border regions, for example between Germany and its neighbours, where cultural hybridisation 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 observed in a culture and their likelihood of change. The layers of the sand dune represent 'can' rules, 'should' rules and 'must' rules.

The 'can' rules of a culture are the least rigid and most diverse, such as teenage slang or fashion trends. They can be likened to the wind-swept part of a dune that keeps shifting. The "should" rules provide a range of action for the different groups that make up a culture, and can be compared to the surface of a dune that shifts over time. These rules are considered "normal" and "reasonable", such as the rules of communication.

The "must rules" of a culture are binding on its members, such as laws and moral codes. They are like the base of a sand dune.



Metaphors that describe multicultural societies


According to the melting pot metaphor, the different ethnic groups that make up a culture merge to form a new culture. This leads to its homogenisation and, as a result, the cultures of origin of the immigrants disappear. This metaphor has often been used for the USA.




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








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

The kaleidoscope is another metaphor for the many aspects of a multicultural society. Like the parts of a kaleidoscope, these aspects are constantly rearranged to create new patterns.



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


Here are two of my ideas:


I suggest the analogy of coloured pencils for multicultural societies, in which people from different ethnic and regional cultures live side by side. Some members of a multicultural society keep themselves separate 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 extent to which characteristics of the other culture(s) are adopted, a new "shade" (culture and identity) is created, resulting in a wide range of different shades. A new picture of the society is drawn with these pens. This picture is continually modified and redrawn according to the new shades that are created.


Decoding a culture

To understand a culture, you need to know the meaning of its codes.


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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