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Culture & communication




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2. Culture metaphors


Trying to define "Culture" has certainly produced a torrent of words over the years. To understand this complicated concept is easier by working with metaphors. Here are a few of the metaphors that have made their way into popular usage in the field of intercultural communication. Study them and characterize the culture in your group with help of metaphors.



^ CULTURE SHOCK

This medical/psychological metaphor is used for the difficulties of adapting to an unfamiliar culture.






The ICEBERG

The popular iceberg metaphor illustrates "hidden culture": the world of assumptions, habits, beliefs that may not be consciously articulated or taught. The metaphor implies danger, the necessity of having a skilled pilot, and justifies the use of cultural experts as there is much more to culture than meets the eye.







^ COMPASS or X mark: YOU ARE HERE!

It’s measuring value orientation of cultures along a continuum. The metaphor is geographic--it locates cultures on a two-dimensional line--and scientific, in that it measures data and produces a numeric, presumably reproducible, location for each given culture. The metaphor is useful because it is easy to grasp, does not value one orientation over another, outlines key differences in culture that affect business, and eases anxieties by giving people the satisfaction of knowing how they measure up, where cultures are situated.










^ JELLY BEANS

Roosevelt Thomas: All jelly beans in the organizational jar are "diverse" not just the red ones or purples ones. Thomas also gives us Organizational Culture as a giant tree, and Culture as a house--an elephant can invite friend giraffe to live together, but the giraffe will not be able to stay long in the elephant's low ceilinged house.





^ MELTING POTS & SALAD BOWLS

Popular metaphors for the relationship of immigrant cultures within a larger nation or dominant culture have shifted from the melting pot to the salad bowl. In the latter, immigrant cultures maintain their original integrity in the new national salad. More cynical observers may note that whether it is stew or salad, it all gets eaten and assimilated in the end.










ORGANISM

This biological metaphor sees culture as living, organic, in motion. There are boundaries between internal and external; the organism (and culture) survives by controlling that boundary--allowing nutrients and waste to pass the boundaries, but keeping out foreign intrusions. Within a culture there will be different functions and roles, yet there is a common being-ness.

 

CHAOS!

Culture is too complex to "manage", should be looked at with awe. One can strive to understand main loops of cause and effect, but realize that you are only capturing a simple version of the mathematically chaotic whole, and that one cannot predict all the effects your actions will create throughout the system.










^ SOFTWARE OF THE MIND

There’s a boundary between what is human and what is machine which is increasingly hard to maintain: the brain as the computer's nature, hardwiring and the mind's culture/knowledge as software. Software is based on algorithms--recipes of sorts--designed by humans for human purposes, then edited and elaborated by future users and programmers.



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1. What culture metaphor could you apply to your group?

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