Exercise 1: Cultural Tree (Exercise for self-reflection)

Draw a tree that shall represent your own personal culture. Please try to find terms that represent your own cultural background for the following three parts of the tree and write them down on your piece of paper/ sheet next to the tree:

  • Roots = origin, sense of belonging to cultural groups (e.g. German, European, or other cultural groups like regional cultures, family culture, fan culture etc.)
  • Trunk = values ​​that you find important in your cultural context (e.g. tolerance, discipline etc.)
  • Leaves = visible signs your cultural background (e.g. a certain meal, a language or a way of communication, a symbol etc.)

After having completed this part please reflect about the following questions:

  • Was it easy to define the cultural group that you belong to? Have you chosen several groups?
  • Do you feel that the values you have chosen are “typical” for your cultural origin?
  • Do you feel comfortable with the visible part of your cultural background or do you prefer to make this as “invisible” as possible? Why? In which situations?
  • What would the cultural tree of your class potentially look like?

After having reflected on the questions please read the conclusions of this exercise here below.

Cultural identity is not the same than nationality or ethnicity

Many people find it difficult to define a specific cultural group for themselves. In the root part of your tree you may have named your national or ethnic background, but you might also have named a city or a certain region, or even a fan community. This is because we belong to many different cultural groups. Cultural identity is not determined solely by national culture: although there are certainly aspects of national culture, there are also regional cultures (for example, regional differences within a country), urban or rural cultures, family culture, fan culture. So people have a multiple cultural identity, they can also consciously decide to accept or reject cultural practices (personality aspect).

Culture is dynamic and changeable

You might also feel that your cultural background and your values have changed during life (for example, values from family tradition vs. values in later adult life, changes in cultural traditions when moving). Culture is not static but dynamic and changeable. We are in a constant learning process in dealing with the culture around us, culture is changing constantly, especially in a globalized world.

Culture can be associated with stereotypes

People tend to connect culture with stereotypes. You yourself might have experienced a situation when somebody has made assumptions about you based on your cultural background. At the same time we have to be aware of the assumptions that we make ourselves about other cultural groups. When we meet people from other cultures we tend to draw conclusions from the “visible” part of their culture about their potential behaviour or about their values. These assumptions may bias our perception of other cultures and so are known as cultural bias. Culturally-biased assumptions result in perceptions that impact on your objectivity when working with culturally diverse groups. The consequences are stigma, stereotyping and discrimination. Especially if you work with a culturally diverse classroom you need to reflect about your perception of different cultural groups.

In addition the “iceberg model of culture” can be can be used to illustrate a model of culture that shows the visible and the invisible elements of culture.

The Iceberg Concept of Culture diagram

The Iceberg model of culture

One of the most well-known models of culture is the iceberg. Its main focus is on the elements that make up culture, and on the fact, that some of these elements are very visible, whereas others are hard to discover.

The idea behind this model is that culture can be pictured as an iceberg: only a very small portion of the iceberg can be seen above the water line. This top of the iceberg is supported by the much larger part of the iceberg, underneath the water line and therefore invisible. Nonetheless, this lower part of the iceberg is the powerful foundation. Also in culture, there are some visible parts: architecture, art, cooking, music, language, just to name a few. But the powerful foundations of culture are more difficult to spot: the history of the group of people that hold the culture, their norms, values, basic assumptions about space, nature, time, etc.

The iceberg model implies that the visible parts of culture are just expressions of its invisible parts. It also points out how difficult it is at times to understand people with different cultural backgrounds – because we may spot the visible parts of “their iceberg”, but we cannot immediately see the foundations that these parts rest upon.