Culture Is Like A Mayonnaise

Culture Is Like A Mayonnaise

The popular ‘Iceberg model’ of culture developed by Selfridge and Sokolik, 1975,  identifies a visible area consisting of behavior or clothing or symbols and artifacts of some form and a level of values or an invisible level.

Recently Milton J. Bennett, Director of Intercultural Development Research institute, suggested to remove this metaphor from the vocabulary of intercultural professionals in his blog Culture is not like an iceberg. Personally I like the iceberg metaphor but the Interculturalist Christian Höferle thinks too that it is a bit too simplistic and offers some interesting suggestions in his blog :Wanted: A 21st century metaphor to explain culture

Mayonnaise I came up with the idea of “mayonnaise”, a water in oil emulsion, to represent culture. What you first see in a good mayonnaise is a homogeneous yellowish cream. But in fact if you look at it under a microscope, it is made of small drops of water with different sizes and shapes dispersed in a homogeneous oil phase. If you include oil too fast then the 2 liquids separate. If you pour and whisk oil slowly, the water drops get smaller and the preparation becomes thick and stable.


 Most people know that water and oil don’t mix together and that you need other ingredients such as emulsifiers to have a stable mixture looking homogeneous from the outside.

 I like to compare droplets of water (coming from egg yolks with some vinegar or mustard) with different shapes and sizes as individuals who share same culture. They are defined as a specific cultural group because they have in common a set of rules, thinking process, behaviors or other cultural norms, that are invisible but highly powerful. In the Mayonnaise metaphor those “invisible” bonds are the emulsifiers, like the lecithin. The oil can represent the most obvious and visible component of the culture: Geography, language for example.

So in short,  culture is not only what you see but you need deep immersion to understand what makes people unique and yet what holds them together by explicit and not so explicit  cultural rules or norms.

How about you ? Do you have a better metaphor to explain culture ?

Anne Egros, Expat Life, Career, Executive Coach

This blog has been inspired by an article published  by Rana Sinha How to understand cross-cultural analysis?. I have summarized Rana’s key ideas and added my own sources of information

Origins and Evolution of Cross-cultural Communication.

 Typically anthropologists and social scientists tend to study people and human behavior among exotic tribes and cultures living in far off places rather than do field work among white-collared literate adults in modern cities. Advances in communication and technology and socio-political changes started transforming the modern workplace yet there were no guidelines based on research to help people interact with other people from other cultures. To address this gap arose the discipline of cross-cultural analysis or cross-cultural communication. The main theories of cross-cultural communication draw from the fields of anthropology, sociology, communication and psychology and are based on value differences among cultures. Edward T. Hall, Geert Hofstede,Fons Trompenaars, Shalom Schwartz

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About Anne Egros

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
This entry was posted in Cross cultural, culture, Executive Coaching, intercultural communication, intercultural training and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Culture Is Like A Mayonnaise

  1. choeferle says:


    Thank you for linking to Southeast Schnitzel.
    In all fairness we should credit Milton J. Bennett for challenging us to rethink the use of the Iceberg model.
    I said it before: Your mayonnaise analogy is tasty!

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