The Iceberg Model

From Competendo - Digital Toolbox
Jump to: navigation, search
Our identity is a unique creation of elements, features, or characteristics which are visible to others and which are unvisible. The "Iceberg Model" gained popularity among educators and scholars in order to explain the uniqueness of individual identities.

Our identity is a unique creation of elements, features, or characteristics which are visible to others and which are unvisible. Similar to an iceberg, where the largest mass is not visibly hidden beneath the surface, we discover more easily in others those features that are visible. Be it because we share these characteristics, for example the age, the preference to dress, the profession or music taste. Or because we (want to) distinguish ourselves.

But what do these visible aspects of a personality say about the individual person? The most and perhaps the most interesting, in any case the most unique aspects lie beneath the surface of the visible: Attitudes, beliefs, hobbies, personal characteristics or thought patterns.


High and Low Context

The creator of the Iceberg model, Edward T. Hall, looks at the individual characteristics of unique people in the context of the culture(s) in which they live together. Culture is also built on elements that are ambiguous, not visible, or in Hall's words: implicit.

Do I say what I mean? Is my partner really saying what he or she wants? If I am hosting someone, I might ask, "Are you hungry?" There are two possible answers: "Oh yes, thank you very much. I ́d really like something to eat, I’m very hungry." Hall describes this low-context communication: the main information "is vested in the explicit code." (Hall, p. 91).

And there is the opposite: "No, thank you, it’s OK." In this second case, my guest is explicitly saying that he or she is not hungry. Implicitly, however, this could be an expression of the expectation for a host to ask again, or it could even be an indirect way of expressing that yes, my host should prepare something for me to eat. Here more knowledge about the intention or context of the person's answer is required: There is not very much information "in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message" (Hall, p. 91). This is high context communication.

Low Context Communication

The main information "is vested in the explicit code."

High Context Communication

Not much information is "in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message."

Generalized Assumptions, Stereotypes and Discrimination

Because in our coexistence we have to deal with implicit and explicit signals sent by others and with aspects that are hidden from our perception, we have to find a way to deal with this ambiguity.

Experience helps us to do this - in other words, we generalize based on previous situations in which we have successfully dealt with this ambiguity. We also like to ascribe attributes to others because it helps us "put them in a box" - this person must be reliable, these people here certainly share a preference, or that person might think the following.

However, the way to prejudice and stereotypes is very short:


Stereotypes represent the cognitive aspect of prejudices that help to categorize daily life. Therefore, stereotypes are a strategy to reduce complexity and simplify reality through standardized assumptions about other individuals. Unlike prejudices, stereotypes can also ascribe positive attributions to a group of people.


Pre-judging refers to a premature, negative, or rejecting judgment of individuals or groups. Prejudices are usually based on insufficient knowledge or a lack of acknowledgement of a person’s, group’s, or circumstance’s relevant characteristics. Those kinds of over-generalizations pass on historical traditions and are learned and reproduced in media, schools, and families. Prejudices are related to social norms.

Source: Diversity Dynamics

A big social problem is discrimination, or in otehr words: When prejudice and stereotypes lead to action against certain people and to different treatment. Discrimination is excluding people from sources, communities, access or rights.


Individuals or groups face discrimination when they are treated differently based on actual characteristics or those attributed to them. Deciding whether or not a specific way of being treated is discriminating can vary from situation to situation. One can distinguish between direct and indirect discrimination.

Direct Discrimination

  • Unequal, disadvantaged, or exclusive treatment (e.g. no/less access to resources)
  • Situations in which people are harmed, humiliated, or hurt
  • Being ignored or not considered (e.g. in participation processes)

Indirect Discrimination

Purportedly neutral treatment with the same rules for everyone but different consequences (e.g. job advertisements demanding perfect language skills discriminate against non-native speakers)

Source: Diversity Dynamics

Conclusion for Education

  • The Iceberg model can facilitate better understanding between high- and low-context communicating persons.
  • It hints us, that stigmatization, discrimination, or stereotypization make use of visible aspects of personal and group identity.
  • In particular, they attach (usually negative) features to a minority group based on visible aspects.
  • Countering and reflecting stereotypes and discriminatory patterns in our living together starts with curiosity on the largest mass of each individuals' Iceberg, and on the implicit elements of culture.


Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Network Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email: