The Culture Map Summary and Review

by Erin Meyer
Has The Culture Map by Erin Meyer been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. The cultures that surround us as we grow up have an enormous impact on how we perceive the world as we grow older. Every single culture conditions its members to view certain ways of communication as more desirable than others. However, if you spend time learning to understand someone’s cultural background, and therefore, the worldview they were raised with, you’ll have the ability to better communicate with them, and reduce the risk of misunderstanding each other. Erin Meyer has come up with eight different scales that will assist you in learning this exact skill, particularly in the world of business. In this summary of The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, you’ll learn:
  • why a shouting match on the streets of Paris might not mean what you think it does;
  • how Sweden is keeping the democratic style of the Vikings alive; and
  • how to safely criticize someone from any part of the world.

The Culture Map Key Idea #1: Being able to accurately observe someone is often more important than simply being a good speaker.

Why is it that communicating with people from other countries is often so challenging? Oftentimes, when we communicate with people from other countries, we need to learn an entirely new set of temperaments, values, and senses of humor. But in order to work around these particularly difficult communication situations, we should strive to avoid being what the Japanese call kuuki yomenai, which translates to someone who “cannot read the air.” We’ll be able to better “read the air” if we realize that people communicate in different ways that all lie on a communicating scale. These different ways of communication can be grouped into low-context cultures and high-context cultures. Many Western countries, like the USA and Australia, are known as low-context cultures, meaning communication is precise and clear in order to avoid misinterpretation. In contrast, being able to communicate in high-context cultures such as in Japan or Korea, requires a more subtle and layered skillset, and these cultures often require reading between the lines in order to fully understand what is meant. However, there doesn’t exist a country that is 100 percent low or high context. For example, managers in France are more likely to lean more on the high-context side than German managers, but are low-context compared to Chinese managers. But why is it that different countries have different contexts? The answers can be found if we look throughout history. High-context cultures like Japan tend to have had largely a homogenous population, which means that it was easier for people to tune into subtle nuances in their communication, therefore developing skills such as “reading the air.” On the other side of the world, American History is much shorter and is largely influenced by immigrants, meaning communicating there needed to be explicit so that everyone could avoid misunderstandings. So what’s the best way to communicate with people in cultures outside your own? First, you need to strike a good balance between listening and speaking. If you’re speaking with someone in a high-context culture, listen for meaning, rather thanwhat is actually spoken. It’s also important in these cultures to pay close attention to changing body language, from head shaking to self-restraint in your conversational partner, which can shroud the meaning of what they’re trying to say. The opposite is true when speaking with someone in a low-context culture. In these situations, it’s important to be as specific as possible so that you may take your time explaining what you mean as clearly as possible. If people from multiple cultures are working together, it’s often most effective to utilize a low-context conversational style so that you can avoid misunderstandings.

The Culture Map Key Idea #2: Be careful with how you give feedback, as it can be offensive.

In the business world, if you’ve ever worked with someone of a different culture, it’s likely you’ve had the misfortune of accidentally offending someone when you actually meant to give them helpful feedback. In order to better understand why this may happen, let’s look at the evaluating scale. Negative feedback can either be direct or indirect. Direct cultures are from countries like Russia or Israel, and are forthright in feedback to their colleagues. They’re also known for using absolute descriptions, known as upgraders, such as “totally” or “strongly” to emphasize their point.  For example, someone from one of these cultures might say “I totally disagree with your opinion. It is absolutely unprofessional.” Also, these cultures are not afraid to criticize someone in front of a group. However, there are also indirect cultures, such as Japan and Indonesia. Being an indirect culture means that they provide gentle feedback and cover their negative messages with positive ones. They also apply the use of downgraders, like “kind of” or “maybe” to get their message across. An example of how they might give feedback would be something like “Maybe you should reconsider your opinion a little bit.” And, unlike direct cultures, criticism in indirect cultures is given in private. So, if we take a step back and look at the communication scale from each of these two sections so far, we can clearly see four groups: Low-Context and Direct-Feedback: e.g., Germany High-Context and Direct-Feedback: e.g., Russia Low-Context and Indirect-Feedback: e.g., USA High-Context and Indirect-Feedback: e.g., Japan To better be able to communicate within these diverse cultures, it’s important to keep these different styles in mind so that you can adapt how you give feedback and reduce your likelihood of accidentally offending someone. When you meet people who were raised in high context and indirect cultures (like Japan), it’s important to avoid delivering feedback in front of others, and ensure that you adjust your message while still retaining its meaning. Sometimes, when giving feedback, it might actually be appropriate to not even mention the negative aspects of whatever you’re trying to discuss, and instead, only highlight the positive aspects. By doing this, it will already become clear to the person you’re speaking with that the negative aspects should be outweighed by more of the positive regardless. By adapting how you communicate with people to other peoples’ feedback styles, you’ll be able to reach your desired outcome through maintaining an image of being supportive and polite.

The Culture Map Key Idea #3: Paying closer attention to how other people convey their ideas will make it easier for you to be more convincing.

How do cultural differences affect how we perceive persuasion? Let’s take a look at the persuading scale. This consists of principles-first reasoning and applications-first reasoning. Principles-first reasoning is a more deductive way of thinking and uses general principles to draw conclusions. A good example of this type of thinking is in learning a new language: you have to learn the grammatical principles first, and then you can start actually speaking the language. On the contrary, applications-first reasoning, is inductive. With this type of reasoning, you start with presenting a theory and follow it with a statement of facts that can support it. This is a method that’s often used in math classes: first, the student is presented with a formula, and then they practice applying it to real situations. After they practice applying it, the student will start to understand its principles. Cultures that use this type of reasoning, such as France or Italy, are more likely to bring attention to why something might be requested, prior to deciding to actually complete the act. Contrary, cultures that prioritize application-first reasoning, like the United States or Canada focus more on how something happens instead of the why. Because of this, it’s likely that a French employee might grow frustrated with an American boss if they’re instructed on how to go about a process rather than the reason being clarified for them. The best way to work through these cultural differences, is to actually switch back and forth between an explanation of the principles behind the point you’re trying to convey and actually showing it’s practical application. For example, lets say that you’re giving a presentation to an international audience on why a product you’re promoting is superior to that of your competition. To start, you could present how your product was produced so that you can satisfy the principles of the first part of your audience. Then, it may be useful to offer some practical examples in the form of videos or demonstrations involving people using your product so that you can draw in the principles of the other half of your audience.

The Culture Map Key Idea #4: In order to successfully lead a group, it’s important to learn to adapt your communication style.

How is it that acknowledging these different cultural styles can actually help both your workflow and your leadership? To understand this, it’ll help to examine the leading scale, a scale that involves cultures that are either egalitarian or hierarchical. Egalitarian cultures, are countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, which have a narrow gap between employees and managers, making it so that managerial roles often focus on mediation between equals. The organizational structures of these types of countries are flat, meaning a marketing director may work on pretty equal grounds with a copywriter, and both sides of the company are equally comfortable using each other’s first names. On the contrary, countries such as China and Nigeria have distinct hierarchical structures, which create huge gaps between supervisors and employees. In cultures that use these structures, it’s the boss that always leads and makes decisions. All communication in cultures that use this structure follows this hierarchy, meaning that in order to speak with someone three positions above you, you’d need to first talk to the one who is directly above your position. Then, that person will go directly above them so that they can reach the person you need to speak with. It’s also important to note that countries that are similar in geographical location don’t necessarily fall on the same spot on the leading scale. with a good example of this is that although France and Sweden are both European, France is more hierarchical. As Professor André Lauren found, the difference between these countries leadership styles originated in a historical difference in leadership. While France’s influence came from the hierarchical and centralized political system that came out of the Roman Empire, Swedish leadership came from a history impacted by the Vikings, one of the world’s first democracies, meaning everyone’s opinions were considered equal. Being able to cope with these cultural differences will help you to understand how every different cultures will react to what you request. In egalitarian cultures, it’s important that employees are included in decision making. Rather than simply supervising in these situations, it’s important to actually facilitate and provide room for employee autonomy so that you can increase your involvement when things may not be progressing well. However, when you’re leading people of hierarchical cultures, it’s important to encourage your employees to actually voice their opinions because without an invitation, they likely won’t. The more important thing is that you make it clear that you’re in a position requiring people to look up to you. This might mean using your surname, instead of your first, for example.

The Culture Map Key Idea #5: Being able to understand varying processes in decision-making will help you to better implement ideas.

An egalitarian viewpoint at work doesn’t automatically mean that decisions are made by the general population of coworkers. This also applies to hierarchical structures, and the reality is, decision-making has its own cultural scale. The deciding scale consists of consensual at one end and top-down at the other. Consensual countries are countries like Sweden and the Netherlands, which are countries which take their time working through decisions with a group until a consensus is reached. Once they’ve all made a final decision, it doesn’t take long to implement whatever it was they decided because everyone involved has already approved it. Decisions in top-down countries like China or India, are generally made by one individual who is usually the boss. While it does take less time to make decisions in top-down countries than in consensual countries, the decisions are often revisited and altered afterwards. Due to this type of revision, it’s often a longer process to actually implement the chances A good example comes from the Japanese ringi-system, which is a proposal document (ringisho) that is offered to mid-management. Every person involved here is then able to edit the document and help the company to reach a consensus. The document then makes its way up to the next management level where the process is repeated again and again until the document finally reaches the person in the uppermost management position. Therefore, the ringi system is both highly consensual and hierarchical. It’s also important to note that it’s smartest to make sure you don’t make quick judgements about decisions if the organizational structure is the only thing you’re familiar with. As with the ringi-system, there are structures that appear top-down but are actually consensual as well. If your workspace is multicultural, it’s important to stick with one decision-making method from the beginning. From the early stages, make sure that it’s clear whether decisions will be consensual or made by a boss. It’s also important to note how important the total consensus will be and also how flexible making these decisions should be. For example, will a decision stick around long term, or is each decision something that can be changed every few weeks? And in the end, when it comes to major decisions, it’s important to make sure you review the method with all employees so that they understand and accept it.

The Culture Map Key Idea #6: Different cultures have difference ways of building trust, but it’s important to everyone.

As the Russian proverb goes, “Trust, but verify.” There are many cultures in the world that have rules in place that ensure that businesses aren’t simply leaning on trust and trust alone. Even so, trust is so central to negotiating in business that there are two categories for it: cognitive trust and affective trust. Cognitive trust comes from working with someone long term and establishing a reliable relationship with them. On the other hand, affective trust involves friends and relatives, making it so that it comes from emotions instead of experiences. On the trusting scale, cultures may be grouped as high task-based to high relationship-based. In regards to business, task-based cultures like the US and the Netherlands base their trust on business-related achievements. From there, depending on how good it is for the business and its profits, a trusting relationship can be built or destroyed incredibly easily. For example, it’s unlikely that an American will be bothered if a longstanding colleague is fired for poor performance. However, relationship-based countries like Brazil and China base their partnerships on shared personal experiences. In China, for example, executives cannot reach a decision until they’ve developed something known as guanxi. So, when working with people from these cultures, it’s important to establish an emotional connection with them. The main thing is, though, that anywhere you go and regardless of what culture you’re working with, establishing trust is useful. Relationship-based trust hinges on affective trust, while task-based trust relies on cognitive trust. However, relationship-based trust proves to be more advantageous, due to the fact that it’s applicable anywhere, whereas task-based trust only works with certain cultures. A good place to start when it comes to creating trust with cultures you aren’t familiar with is to work on identifying commonalities. For example, you might discuss personal topics with the people you share a workspace with, such as family or music. Being able to talk about these more personal things will show that you’re not simply interested in talking about business, but are actually invested in getting to know the other person. This type of care will help you to build a personal relationship with your colleague. Relationship-based cultures require you to show your authentic self, so you aren’t worried about doing anything wrong.

The Culture Map Key Idea #7: There is actually a good way to disagree.

Some cultures openly welcome disagreement, but bear in mind whether you are disagreeing with somebody personally or with her idea. The disagreeing scale shows how different cultures deal with confrontation, either appreciating it or evading it. Cultures with confrontational disagreeing patterns, like Israel or France, separate the person they’re disagreeing with and the idea they’re disagreeing with, which allows them to make sure that confrontation doesn’t negatively impact any relationships. So, for example, if you’re in Paris and see two people arguing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t good friends. In cultures which avoid confrontation such as Indonesia or Japan, it’s often seen as inappropriate or disruptive to the harmony of the group to openly confront someone. Additionally, in these cultures, a person and their idea is often seen as strongly connected, so countering someone’s personal opinion is actually seen as an attack on them, rather than simply their idea. It’s also important to consider emotional expression. Cultures are generally either emotionally expressive or inexpressive. And there are plenty of cultures, such as Germany and France, which are both confrontational cultures, yet differ in their disagreement styles. In German cultures, people have a tendency to objectively disagree without involving their personal emotions. This allows them to better distinguish between the person and the idea. So, it’s likely that you won’t actually encounter as many emotional arguments in Berlin as you would in Paris. French cultures are classified as emotionally expressive, which makes it quite hard for non-French people to tell whether it’s them or their idea that’s being criticized. In an effort to maintain relationships with different cultures, it’s important to understand how disagreement is handled within them. In cultures which avoid disagreement, it’s crucial to hold pre-meetings that don’t include the boss, which can help people to prepare to take criticism. This allows employees to come together and offer feedback as a group, which makes for a consensus critique, as opposed to a critique of an individual, whether it’s the boss or an employee. When working with cultures which are more confrontational than your own, however, it’s important to be cautious when approaching disagreement. However, it’s also important to note that you need not completely change your debating style to match that of another culture if it doesn’t feel natural to you, and rather, it’s better to participate in a relaxed debate.

The Culture Map Key Idea #8: It’s important to create schedules according to a culture’s perception of time.

How is it possible that a time that would be considered late in Germany would be right on time in France? It’s as simple as the fact that time perception differs between cultures, ranging from linear to flexible on the final scale we will look at: the scheduling scale. Linear cultures, such as Germany and Switzerland look at tasks one at a time, making sure that one task is complete before jumping into the next. It’s more valuable to someone from these cultures to adhere to deadlines and schedules rather than being adaptable or flexible when it comes to business practices. It’s also important to note that it’s considered impolite to behave in a way that isn’t related to what you’re doing at that current moment, meaning that answering your cell phone or chatting to your colleague during a meeting would give a negative impression. However, cultures like Saudi-Arabia and Kenya have more flexible time schedules and deal with tasks as they arise, making it so that many things may be addressed at the same time. Adaptability is seen as more important than organization and meetings aren’t necessarily linear. Although a meeting might have a predefined schedule, it’s common for discussions to stray and for subgroups to form, allowing discussions to turn into topics that weren’t clearly stated in the schedule. So how can you work among people of different scheduling cultures? It’s possible to learn how the people you work with work through tasks and then emulate what they’re doing for yourself. For example, if you’re working with people of a linear culture, try to adhere closer to a schedule when in a meeting with them. It’s important to plan your meetings in detail in these situations and emphasize punctuality in order to stick to the meeting’s planned theme of discussion. When working with people of more flexible cultures, it’s good to plan meetings with no predetermined limits. As someone in a managerial position, it’s important to be able to adapt to and cope with needs as they might come up. It’s also good to build a team culture, which can have its own special scheduling habits and rules, which will help when it comes to dealing with coworkers that come from different cultures. A good way to try this out is to try an exercise where everyone pretends that they’re from Switzerland, where punctuality is of high importance. Then, you might agree that whenever someone arrives to a meeting late, they’ll contribute five Euros to the end of year party. In Review: The Culture Map Book Summary The key message in this book: It’s possible to learn to adapt your communication and leadership styles to match different cultures, and all it takes is some understanding, education, and flexibility. In doing this, you’ll be able to effectively avoid conflict and conduct business wherever you are in the world. Actionable advice: It’s important to understand that there are often huge differences between countries, even if they happen to be geographically close to each other. For example, France and Germany border each other, but they don’t necessarily conduct business the same way. Both do tend to lean toward more open confrontation, but Germans are less likely to show emotion while they do this. When dealing with someone of Chinese culture, it’s good to ask for input. Due to the hierarchical nature of the Chinese system, a Chinese businessperson will be unlikely to speak up in a meeting. This is actually due to respect, rather than shyness, so if you would like their input, you’ll need to ask for it directly. Suggested further reading: Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright Tribal Leadership shows how people who work together can function as a tribe. Each tribe holds specific cultural standards which determine their productivity, and there are five different stages of this primal culture. This book summary will show how you, as the “tribal leader,” can guide your tribe to higher levels, resulting in a healthier and more productive work environment.