Article by Sheri Lazarus
Art by Anna Seeley and Abby Smith
It is 4:42 a.m. I wake up in an orphanage in south- eastern India. Though tired from yesterday’s EMI project work, I cannot remain asleep as a mosque’s siren signals the start of Ramadan fasting. Wide awake, I lie in bed and listen to the other sounds around me. A Hindu neighbour rings a tiny bell as he chants his morning prayers at the family shrine. A vendor shouts the names of fruits for sale. A rooster crows. Without warning, a teenage girl slips silently past the curtain that functions as the door to my room and bows at my bedside with a tray of hot tea.
Every day in India reminds me that this place is different from the America of my childhood. Yet our work with EMI begs the question, just how different is it? How does living and working in a radically different culture affect design? Isn’t a building still a building? At the end of the day, aren’t all people really the same inside? Doesn’t the bond of Christ bridge the gap within our culturally diverse teams and the clients we serve so that we don’t have to worry about differences?
Every traveller quickly learns that people from other nations eat different foods, wear different clothes, and speak different languages. But culture runs much deeper. As with icebergs, the greater mass of any culture lies beneath the surface, under the waves. We who serve with EMI must become adept at recognizing these icebergs and the essential aspects of culture which lie below the waterline.
Anthropologist Edward T. Hall first developed the iceberg concept in 1976 as a way to understand human societies. He explained that the parts of culture which we can observe with our senses—clothes, food, gestures, music, etc.—are just the tip of the iceberg. You might call these the What. Above-the-water concepts are explicitly passed on by other members of that culture, as when I teach my toddler when to wear shoes or use her “indoor voice.” Since these aspects of culture are consciously learned, they are also more easily recognized and changed. Thus, on a project trip we might learn to eat spicy food, sing a Spanish song, or bow rather than shake hands.
But the visible, above-the-water part of an iceberg indicates an invisible and much greater section below. These below-the-water aspects of culture are, by far, the more important and more influential parts. They include attitudes and beliefs, values, expectations, and assumptions—the essence of worldview. The below-the-water parts of cultures can be called the Why. Since these generally subconscious components of culture are caught by watching those around us more than they are explicitly taught, they are much harder to identify and change. Most of us have never stopped to consider our own under-the-water culture, let alone another’s.
So how can we begin to recognize the cultural icebergs around us? One effective method is to look for “ripples.” Just as a disturbance on top of the water can indicate something submerged beneath, it is possible to use what you can directly observe to lead toward what you cannot. Sirens do not tend to sound at 4:42 a.m. unless there is a good reason. That’s a ripple. When you hear the What, start looking for the Why. Let’s look at some cultural examples below. What can the visible or audible cues around us tell us about a people’s values, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations?
Remarkably, even when we recognize differences in terms of religion, food, language, and dress, it is still easy to proceed with the design work relatively unaffected—as if survey maps, buildings, and water systems exist apart from culture. It is tempting to believe that visible differences are a façade, and that people are really the same deep down. Thus it follows that good design should be carried out in basically the same way around the world. If we persist in this assumption, however, we run the risk of making significant errors in both the process and products of our design.
Consider a few observations, based on real EMI project trips. What might these above-the-water ripples indicate about the deeper culture of our teammates, clients, and host countries?
When we do the hard work of identifying and understanding the cultural icebergs on our project trips, the rewards can be substantial: Smoother team dynamics, better communication with the client, and greater understanding of the needs of the ministry. These result in more appropriate ideas and an increased likelihood that the project will be built as designed. Most of all, recognizing the iceberg is part of loving our neighbour cross-culturally, and that honours God.