Have you read “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer? If not… 😱… get right on it after you finished reading this post! This really is essential reading not just for anyone in international business, but also for anyone who is working with multi-cultural teams.
You can order it here (this is an affiliate link which will bring you directly to the Amazon shop in your region)
Erin Meyer is a Minnesota, USA born author and Professor of Cross Cultural Management at INSEAD in Paris, a leading international management school. She’s a leading world authority on the topic of cross-cultural management and has worked with organisations such as the World Bank, the United Nations, KPMG, Google, Sinopec or BNP Paribas.
Her work focuses on how the world’s most successful global leaders navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a multicultural environment. Living & working in Africa, Europe and the US prompted her to begin studying the communication patterns & business systems of different parts of the world.
But what is The Culture Map (by Erin Meyer)?
This is a system of 8 scales which can be used to determine how cultures vary along a spectrum.
The scales can be used to analyse one culture relative to another and decode how culture influences your international collaborations. If you take the example of an Israeli executive who has been appointed to manage a newly purchased factory in Russia, and compare where both countries are on the scale, you can see where difficulties could arise.
In terms of how to communicate (& disagree) as well as in preferring a flexible time approach the 2 countries are relatively similar, however there are huge differences in the way the 2 nations pref to lead and make decisions, as well as when it comes to persuasion. Russians generally favour a top down hierarchical approach (the General Manager is the “Direktor” who in the end can decide pretty much everything, whilst the Israelis prefer a more informal business culture with flatter hierarchies.
Of course, within any nation the people will have a range of attitudes to each of these topics, but the majority can be expected to behave in the way expected from the model.
The book is set out in 8 chapters – covering each of the scales mentioned above.
Listening to the Air: Communicating Across Cultures
The core concept here is whether cultures are low or high context. Do they state everything exactly as they mean (the most extreme example here is the USA) or do they infer this from the context of what is being said? In the highest context cultures of East Asia, children are taught to “listen to the air” so that they can infer what is going on from what isn’t said. Much of the communication in Japan, Korea or Indonesia is implicit and can lead to the perception that for example visiting US businessmen are rather childish and primitive in their approach.
Everything is relative though – it’s not only about the 2 extremes. The UK is a medium context country, which can partly explain why British people often find the “in your face” nature of US humour rather childish.
The Many Faces of Polite: Evaluating Performance and Providing Negative Feedback
Obviously this can rapidly become “an issue” in a work environment where managers have to navigate the best way to give feedback to their teams so that it will be received in the manner that it is meant.
Have you ever seen Nannette Ripmeester’s Anglo-Dutch Translation? I showed it to a friend who is half Dutch & he almost fell off his chair laughing. I still need to investigate further, which of MY typical sayings provoked this response… presumably my use of “downgraders” to soften negative statements
Once upon a time several years ago, an Austrian management trainer told a group of us that using “with all due respect..” was a great way of gently pointing out a different opinion to a more senior staff member. I seized gleefully on this, feeling that I could use it to release my inner eye-roll whilst being perceived as constructive. Win-win!
It’s key to note here that the communication and evaluation scale results here are not always exactly mapping to one another. eg Israel is high context, but also extremely direct with their way of giving feedback – to the point of it appearing brutally insensitive to certain other cultures. On the other hand, the USA is the lowest context culture, but certainly compared to Israelis would sugarcoat negative feedback in a “feedback sandwich” surrounded by positive points.
If you are working together with Asian partners you may need to be hyper-sensitive to even realise that any criticism has been voiced (although it can be different if you are working directly for a Japanese manager, due to the cultural attitude to hierarchy).
Why Versus How: The Art of Persuasion in a Multicultural World
The Asian countries don’t actually appear on this scale as their frame of reference is totally different to those of the Western world. Asians generally take a more holistic view and want to see the total picture (think about traditional Chinese medicine which also treats the whole person rather than purely symptoms & which can seem rather random to a German if he arrives with a headache & the doctor wants to apply pressure to his toes).
The rest of the world divides broadly into societies where deductive reasoning is valued and those where empirical reasoning takes the forefront. Most of us have learnt to use both, but the one we use most habitually depends to a large extent on the education system in which we grew up.
Countries like Italy or France are “why oriented” deductive reasoners. Anyone who has had to write formal essays in French will have been confronted numerous times with the need to structure it with “Thesis, antithesis and synthesis” which is at the root of this system.
The Anglo-Saxon nations are more concerned with the “how” and will focus more on practical applications or conclusions rather than the method of reaching those ideas.
This principle becomes critical when it comes to preparing presentations or writing emails to explain (or “sell”) an idea. Both sides of the scale need usually to receive all of the same information but the focus and order of presenting that information can make or break deals.
As a Brit working for a French company at the beginning of my career (& one of the only fluent French speakers on the UK team), I was often faced with restructuring ideas so that my French colleagues would follow my build up in a meeting. That way I had a better chance of getting my proposals accepted. On the other hand, when bringing decisions back to the UK from meetings in HQ, I learnt to summarise the main decisions first, followed by the reasoning behind them.
This is a point that can make collaboration within teams quite complicated if several nationalities are represented, but understanding the culture map can help you to avoid misunderstandings, reducing frustrations.
Persuading in Asia
This is a topic for whole PhD dissertations! Important is to remember the cultural emphasis on interconnectedness & interdependency – Asians tend to think from macro to micro.
Consequently to put it in a nutshell, if you are looking to persuade within Asian cultures it’s important to begin by explaining the big picture. You need to make it clear how all the parts fit together and THEN you can begin to explain what you need specifically from your Asian partners or team members.
How Much Respect Do You Want? Leadership, Hierarchy, and Power
It was Geert Hofstede, with his cultural dimensions, who first developed the concept of “power distance”
Here it is the Scandinavians, the Dutch and the Israelis who are at the extreme egalitarian end of the scale. (The French for all their constitutional equality are more towards the hierarchical end) The East Asians, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Nigeria are at the hierarchical extreme. At this “upper” end of the scale, leaders are expected to lead from the front and status is important.
If you want to be taken seriously by potential customers in those societies then you need to make sure you stay in a “representative” hotel, wear suitable clothes and preferably a nice watch to show that you are important. Ladies, a nice handbag can go a long way in China to proving that you are “a leader”… (yes, even I carry a decent handbag when in China).
Big D or Little d: Who Decides, and How?
Consensual decisions or top down by an individual? Most egalitarian cultures are more consensual in their decision making, with the notable exception of the US (who sees this form of decision making as too slow and inflexible).
Nations such as Germany who prefer decisions by consensus do all the discussion work up front. Once a Decision (with a capital D) has been made, it’s viewed as final and all efforts are poured into executing on it. In more hierarchical cultures, decisions are made rapidly by one person based on the info available at the time, but may also be subject to revision when new data becomes known or a situation changes.
Can you see the potential for conflict here?
It’s important not to respond emotionally when it becomes obvious that certain team members or partners are used to working with a different decision making process. Discussing the expectations as openly as possible, without judgement, can be a way of deciding on a method that works, at least within management teams.
The Head or the Heart: Two Types of Trust and How They Grow
There are two types of trust: cognitive and affective. The cognitive kind is task based and given according to the knowledge you have that someone is capable of doing a job. This is epitomised by the American “business is business” attitude. At the other end of the scale, you have those cultures, for whom trust is relationship based and built over coffee, meals, drinks etc including the Middle East, China or India. For anyone who hasn’t heard about guanxi, please go read my post on that.
Of course, having good relationships with the people you work with is a good idea whatever culture you’re in, however in Denmark or the Netherlands it wouldn’t be regarded as an essential prerequisite for starting to work effectively together. Also, don’t confuse “friendly” with “friends” – an American will almost always be friendly, but it doesn’t mean they see you as a friend. This is the peach or coconut question that Vivian Manasse asked me during the Business Beyond Borders Event.
The Needle, Not the Knife: Disagreeing Productively
Historically speaking, nations disagree differently – a strange but true phenomena.
In Israel and France – and to a lesser extent in Germany and Russia – you are expected to get confrontational, and this will not impact the relationship in any negative way.
However, you are better off avoiding confrontation altogether in East Asian countries, since it is harshly frowned upon.
Speaking with passion isn’t the same as disagreeing as, especially in northern Europe, objectivity is valued strongly. So a German may disagree with you on the issue to be discussed, but is unlikely to show much emotion, however important it is to him (which in turn can drive a Greek or Egyptian crazy).
It can be difficult for European managers working with Asia or South America if your teams don’t express any disagreement, so it’s really key to work on having productive meetings.
Don’t make the mistake if you are working with a team from a culture which is more confrontational than your own of assuming that the team is full of rebels, who want nothing more than to undermine your authority. The Culture Map by Erin Meyer provides a whole host of tips for improving communication with your team, to help avoid misunderstandings.
How Late Is Late? Scheduling and Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Time
This is the scale that is often dealt with in 1 day seminars about “doing business in X”, alongside what kind of gifts to bring and how to hold your cutlery. However it’s more a mindset issue than anything else, as I wrote in my post “Time is Time, right?“
Does your culture have a linear (monochronic) or flexible (polyychronic) view of time?
Let’s take the example of a 9am appointment. If you are Swiss then it is polite to arrive at 8:55. A Brit might arrive “on the dot” of the hour, whilst a Frenchman would probably regard 9:10 to still be on time. An Egyptian on the other hand probably wouldn’t think anything of arriving up to an hour late.
Whether you’re talking about starting a meeting or due dates for projects, this can have a large impact on your working style!
The Culture Map by Erin Meyer in Review
If you haven’t read the book then you should go do so. If you’ve been working internationally it will provide a lot of “aha” moments and chuckles as you recognise situations that you’ve experienced. You may even gain some additional insights into your own culture along the way.
If you are new to working with international teams then this is certainly a good place to start. Erin Meyer offers tools on her website to allow you to map both your own culture and those of your team members so that you can begin to analyse how best to work together and where friction could arise. So map out your cultures as in the example above with Israel & Russia and look where the similarities and differences are.
Once you’ve identified what is typical in your own culture and how that varies from others you can really start to work out your own strategies for dealing with the differences. That may mean that you have to think again about the emails you send, how you structure your sales deck or how you run your annual appraisals. For sure, you won’t get it right all of the time, none of us do, but those mistakes are often the tales that become legend and help your team to move forward.
The simplest way of working is if it’s a single culture that you are working with. eg You as a Spanish person working with a Turkish client. In this case it can be relatively clear cut about HOW to act. Things get way more complex though with each nationality that you add into the mix & you need to be aware of that.
What’s really essential is that you are able to open the dialogue with those people that you are working with to make everyone aware that it’s ok to embrace the differences, whilst at the same time collaborating to find a “modus operandi” that works for all of you. Within your team it’s possibly easier to have that open discussion than with customers (although take a look at their expectations of hierarchy first 😉 ), but be aware that you may need to get creative about “how” to transport the message. How does culture affect your effectiveness?
What I really like about this book is the easy to digest style combined with many case studies and practical advice about how you can overcome obstacles to smooth work caused by intercultural differences. My summary here only scratched the surface of the main points, but I hope enough to encourage you to go out and buy the book if you didn’t already. Of course simply owning it isn’t enough, the knowledge won’t transfer magically by osmosis – you have to read it and take action too in order to gain the benefit.
You can order it here (this is an affiliate link which will bring you directly to the Amazon shop in your region)
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If you enjoyed this post, you might find these posts about intercultural topics and business culture interesting:
- Cultural Differences US and Japan: sales communication in East Asia
- Business Etiquette in Vietnam
- China Challenges: Understanding Chinese Business culture
- Israeli Business Culture
- How to Succeed as an Expat
- Building Company Culture in Global Teams
- Time is Time, Right? Here’s why that isn’t true
- Build Strong Business Relationships to Drive Growth