13 Metaphors for Culture and Cultural Diversity

Some of my favorite metaphors for cultural diversity are:

  • The Melting Pot
  • The Salad Bowl
  • The Patchwork Quilt

Some great metaphors for culture shock are:

  • Culture is a Code to Crack
  • A Jigsaw Puzzle
  • A Rulebook Written in Invisible Ink

Below, I’ll outline 15 of the top culture metaphors – whether you’re studying multiculturalism or exploring what it means to visit a new culture yourself, there’s something here for everyone.

A Simple Definition of Culture: Culture is what is expected, rewarded and reinforced in a society.

Idioms and Metaphors for Cultural Diversity

1. Melting Pot

The melting pot metaphor refers to the idea that a society’s culture is a blend of cultures immigrating to the new society and ‘blending into’ one new culture.

Like adding spices to a dish, new immigrants add flavor to the culture and can change facets of it. But, the culture maintains its overall integrity. The immigrants quickly blend in and are absorbed into the culture of the society into which they enter.

The melting pot metaphor is therefore seen as a heterogenous or ‘monocultural’ idea of what a society or country should be. New immigrants blend in and do not maintain their unique identity separate from the greater society. As a result, many advocates of multiculturalism see the melting pot as a negative vision society and immigration.

2. Salad Bowl

The salad bowl metaphor is often presented as a contrast to the melting pot concept. It’s seen as a version of cultural diversity where each individual culture in a society maintains its unique identity.

The elements of a salad bowl don’t dissolve into the stew. They maintain their integrity as a single entity – toss it around and everything will mix together but it will all still be distinct and separate.

So, many advocates of multiculturalism believe the salad bowl is a better idea to aspire towards. Everyone can mingle while maintaining their own culture and identity.

3. Multicultural Stew

The multicultural stew is a blend of the melting pot and salad bowl metaphors. As LeAna Gloor notes:

“There are many social theorists who are writing about a compromise between the melting pot approach and the tossed salad analogy”

The idea of the multicultural stew is that all the elements of a stew are still visible: you can see your distinct meats and vegetables in a stew, but the flavors still rub-off on one another.

So here, the idea is that each separate culture contributes to the whole, creating a distinct overarching multicultural culture. But, within that culture you can still have other cultures that are influencing one another and carrying on with their own unique and distinct cultural practices.

4. Patchwork Quilt

The patchwork quilt metaphor for cultural diversity moves us away from food metaphors while still presenting something similar to the tossed salad and stew metaphors above.

If you look at a patchwork quilt, each patch may be unique. But nevertheless they all stick together to create an interesting and cohesive quilt.

A patchwork quilt is a lot like the tossed salad because everyone still maintains their unique cultural identity. But it appears even less integrated because it’s not ‘tossed’. The pieces on the inside never touch the pieces on the outside.

For me, I look at the patchwork quilt like I’d look at the map of a multicultural city like Sydney or Vancouver. Each suburb is a patch on the quilt. One suburb is predominantly Chinese, another is predominantly Indian, and yet another is predominantly Western European. Each culture has its ‘space’ and doesn’t necessarily need to blend.

culture metaphors

5. Mosaic

I won’t linger on the mosaic metaphor for too long because it’s very similar to the patchwork quilt.

The cultural mosaic metaphor is closely associated with Canada’s multiculturalism strategy. One of the first known uses of the metaphor was in the 1938 book titled Cultural Mosaic by John Murray Gibbon. In the book, the author was critical of  the melting pot because it had a homogenous view of society.

He compared the American ‘melting pot’ to the Canadian ‘mosaic’ where Canadian immigrants tend to maintain their original cultural identity to a great extent. Critics have pushed back, saying there’s no clear difference between the US and Canada in terms of assimilation.

Idioms and Metaphors for Culture Shock

6. Iceberg (hidden culture)

Example: “The culture is an iceberg. There’s so much to it than meets the eye.”

The iceberg metaphors of culture states that we can only see or ‘point out’ the surface elements of cultures. Most aspects of a culture are hard to see.

In a similar way, the majority of an Iceberg is hard to see because it’s underwater.

New immigrants to a culture will often realize this fast. They might know about things like the food that people eat and some slang words they use.

But learning about the more subtle things about a culture is hard. You might learn that your new culture is more blunt than yours, or perhaps more polite than yours. And you have to make a lot of very small adjustments over time to ‘fit in’.

So when you come to a new culture and start learning about all the smaller details of the culture, you can say: “The culture is an iceberg. There’s so much to it than meets the eye.”

culture shock metaphors

Read Also: Ocean Metaphors

7. A Jigsaw Puzzle

Example: “The culture is a Jigsaw puzzle that I haven’t solved yet.”

To say a culture is a jigsaw puzzle is to say that you’re having trouble understanding it. Just like how you can find it hard to fit all the pieces together in a jigsaw, you might also find it hard to understand a culture when you arrive in it.

You might have trouble finding out how your new culture interacts, does business, or expects you to behave.

It will take you time to figure out the ‘Cultural Jigsaw’ (and it might hurt your head!) but once you have figured it out, you will feel you have accomplished something.

8. A Code to Crack

Example: “I haven’t cracked this culture’s code yet.”

Cultures almost literally have “codes” such as “codes of conduct” that shape how you should behave. And when you arrive to a new culture, you have to crack the code. In other words, you need to figure out the secret rules of behavior.

Examples might include: How do you greet people? Should you wait in a polite line or not? Should you leave work at 5pm or stay until after the boss leaves? How do you do your taxes? When is it appropriate to show emotion? When it is appropriate to make a joke?

So, you can see yourself as a detective in a new culture trying to figure out the code!

9. A Rulebook Written in Invisible Ink

The last of these culture shock metaphors is a continuation of this idea that there’s an invisible code. This time, you can say that you know there are rules, but the ink is invisible … at least to you. You know there are things you need to know, but you can’t for the life of you figure them out.

You could also say it’s written in an indecipherable code, or a foreign language, and the metaphor would have the same effect.

Other Culture Metaphors and Idioms

10. A Culture is Messages from the Past

This is a more positive reflection on culture. It looks at culture as a message that comes from your grandparents and great grandparents. The behaviors, values and beliefs are passed down from one generation to the next.

So when you’re enacting your culture, you could say you’re listening to messages from your forefathers. You’re obeying the rules that helped you and your forefathers prosper. You’re heeding their warnings and their lessons and carrying on their wishes.

This can help people feel as if they’re part of something bigger than themselves and connected to a sacred lineage.

11. Culture is a Group Personality

This is almost a literal definition, but I think it could also be interpreted as an idiom. The definition is along the lines of: “Culture is to a group what personality is to a person.”

For example, a single person’s personality might be “rude”, “abrasive”, “stoic”, “polite”, or even “Muslim” or “Christian”. Personalities are, of course, made up of many different features.

But when we look at a whole culture, we might see personalities that are consistent across the culture. There might be commonly agreed upon attitudes and personalities, such as one county being known for being loud, brash, blunt, polite, or even hard-working.

12. Culture is an Anchor for our Values

We often look back upon our culture as something that keeps us connected to fundamental moral truths. So, just like a boat is tied to a strong sturdy foundation by an anchor so it doesn’t drift from where it started, so too can a person be ‘anchored’ to their culture.

For example, if you were from a culture that got its values from a religion, one of those anchor points might be “do unto others as you would have done unto you”. Or, it might be “if you commit murder you will spend eternity in hell”.

So, the culture is that anchor that brings you back to something that will remind you how to behave, interact, and hold yourself in society.

13. A Straightjacket

This negative metaphor for culture might be used by someone who feels their culture is harming them. For example, if you were from a very conservative culture but you were gay, then maybe you would feel like the culture was constraining you like a straightjacket.

This metaphor works because culture tells us what to do and what we’re not supposed to do. If you feel as if the moral beliefs of your culture are inconsistent with your own, then this can be very difficult to live with. So you might say: “this culture is a straightjacket, holding me back from being my true self!”

Go Deeper: Freedom Metaphors

Conclusion

The above culture metaphors and idioms are by no means the only ones that exist. But, they do represent some of the most common metaphors for culture and cultural diversity out there.

If none of these metaphors suit you, feel free to make one up yourself! The great thing about metaphors is that they’re only limited to your own imagination. If you can think up better ones that suit your situation more effectively, let your imagination run wild!

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