Let’s Move Beyond the Five “F’s” of Culture

“Culture is our greatest legacy.” (Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence)

Walk through the halls of most any school these days and you’ll likely run into some colorful, well-constructed poster boards displaying a “culture project”. One that comes to mind was in a well-regarded high school, in which a diligent student represented Latina culture through Shakira, Latin American cuisine (tortillas, tamales, and tacos), and a display of national flags. Yes. Shakira has taught us that hips don’t lie, and who doesn’t like a good fajita with black beans and rice? But what did this display tell me about Latin American culture? Absolutely nothing.

Today in schools, as it has always seemed to be, we celebrate culture through the Five F’s: food, fashion, famous people, festivals, and flags. This is perhaps because it’s so easy to put such a display together. More likely, however, we just don’t study in school, and thus understand and appreciate, the deeper aspects of culture. In fact, it is these deeper aspects of culture–such as the influence of religion, social norms, the role of elders, etc.–that most drive our day-to-day behaviors and decisions.

The most apt metaphor to describe deep culture is the cultural iceberg. Gary Weaver (1986) introduced this model, which identifies the visible aspects of culture–the Five F’s!–at the tip of the iceberg, or the “surface culture”. As we know about icebergs, the surface is only 10% of the total picture, and not the essence of the mass.

Moving near or below the surface, which represents our basic awareness level, gets us to the “folk culture”, aspects such as the role of education, work, and family values. Going even deeper gets us to the rich cultural characteristics of language, gender and age roles, and family dynamics. See this link for a crude (mea culpa) graphic of this iceberg. Here are two more refined versions: this and this.

Shakira, burritos, and the national flag of Venezuela told me nothing of Latin American culture. What I really want to know is the following: 1. What sparked the massive student protest in Chile in 2006? 2. What did it take for Argentina to legalize gay marriage in 2010? 3. What value do the several dozen uncontacted indigenous tribes of Brazil provide to humanity? 4. Why did Macdonalds go bankrup in Bolivia? and 5. Why is Columbia rated as the “happiest country in the world” (2014)?

Teachers. Go beyond the easy and the superficial that we know as the Five F’s (the “five effs” to those who care deeply about cultural competence). For your next culture project, start with the iceberg, and deduct points for any student operating above the surface of the water.


Weaver. Gary R.(1986). Understanding and coping with cross-cultural adjustment Stress. In R.M. Paige (Ed). Cross-cultural orientation. New conceptualizations and applications. Lanham MD: University Press of America.