I have just read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer and it has excited me more than anything I have read for several years (since Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick in 2007). If you work internationally or if you manage cross-cultural teams I strongly suggest you read this book – it is useful, enjoyable, and an engaging read. The book is a forensic analysis of some of the key differences between cultures and how these differences create problems when people from different backgrounds work together. The book is also a manual for how to deal with many of these problems.
I don’t want to steal any of the book’s thunder (I want you to buy it and read it), but a couple of examples will help illustrate the insight and usefulness of the book.
1) A French businesswoman in America. Early in the book Meyer uses an anecdote about a French businesswoman to illustrate a non-obvious clash between French and American styles. The businesswoman was transferred from Paris to the USA to lead a team of Americans. She was looking forward to the challenge as she appreciated the direct and honest style of Americans (e.g. ‘say what you mean, mean what you say’). However, Meyer was brought in because the appointment was failing. What the French businesswoman had not appreciated is that negative feedback is an exception to the American style. In France, messages are often implied and the listener needs to read between the lines. But criticism in France tends to be direct and quite blunt. In the USA, most messages are explicit; there is no need to read between the lines. But, in the USA criticism is a big exception. In the USA it is more typical, when criticising somebody, to say some nice things first, slip in the criticism, and then wrap up with something nice. In many other cultures this approach seems dishonest, if the meeting is about criticism, it should start and finish with ‘constructive criticism’. But, it was only when the French businesswoman was able to use Meyer’s advice and adjust to the American system (in terms of being able hear criticism hidden inside a sandwich of praise and of offering criticism in a similarly packaged way) that she was able to flourish in the USA.
2) Running a team of French, German, Japanese, and Chinese automotive experts. Near the end of the book is another great example of how some differences can surprise us. This example related to another French person, this time a businessman with a senior position in an automotive supply company. The businessman found some differences he expected, for example the Japanese and Chinese colleagues were uncomfortable with the way the German and French colleagues disagreed in public and the way they challenged ideas (dialectic being part of both German and French culture). However, the businessman was surprised that the biggest problems were between the Chinese and Japanese colleagues. Meyer used her cultural map approach to highlight that in two key areas these two countries have very different approaches. In Japan, decision making is consensual and timelines are treated as rigid. In China, decision making is top down and the priority is flexibility, not creating and sticking to specific timelines. The Japanese were saying the Chinese were disorganised and chaotic. The Chinese were saying that the Japanese were too slow and too rigid. Again, Meyer was able to offer advice on how to create productive outcomes.
The Eight Cultural Scales
I have been working across cultures for more than 30 years. I speak and read a little Japanese and spend several months a year outside of my native UK. Over the years, I have built up a reasonable set of skills for working across cultures. Indeed, I run a course for my trade body (ESOMAR) on how to present to multi-cultural audiences (the next session will be at the ESOMAR APAC Conference in Shanghai). But, I have found this book massively helpful, because it approaches the topic in a systematic way, producing a coherent and useful overview.
The book is based around eight cultural scales, and identifies where a variety of countries sit on each scale. Please read the book to find out about all eight scales, but here are a couple of tasters.
1) High and Low Context. Cultures differ in whether they explicitly spell everything out (for example USA and Australia), or whether the true message is implied and the listener needs to decode it (for example Japan and Indonesia). To somebody from a high context country (such as Korea) the habit of low context cultures (such as Canada) of wanting to write and circulate a summary of the meaning can seem to lack trust. To people from low-context countries, the lack of detail and precision can seem like an unwillingness to commit to things.
2) Consensual and Top-down decision making. Some cultures (such as Japan) are very consensual; some (like Russia) are very top down. In the book, Meyer tells the story of merger of a German and an American financial institution. The Americans were complaining that the Germans were dragging their feet (because decision making in Germany is consensual). The Germans were complaining that the Americans were railroading them (because American decision making is top down). Meyer highlighted the source of the problems and suggested remedies. As in many of her examples, the remedies suggested by Meyer started by getting both teams recognising that the differences were cultural (not personal) and then highlighting the need to explicitly address them (as opposed to trying to work round them).
As well as writing this book Meyer has created a useful website with a good range of further resources.
This book is not for everybody
Some business books are relevant to everybody involved in business, but this book is not like that. There are two conditions that I think are necessary for you to find this book both interesting and useful:
- You need some experience of cross-cultural working. Without some personal experience, I doubt that you will feel the pain of the issues that Meyer highlights.
- You need to be able to look at your own culture (and your own nature) introspectively. If you think that your way is right and other ways are simply ‘wrong’, then I think you will struggle to see the wisdom in the book.
So, if you have read this book already (it was first published in 2014), please add a comment below about your reaction to the book. If you have not read it, I strongly recommend it, and after, perhaps you could add a comment about what you found useful, or about any misgivings you had, or about your own multicultural experiences and failures?
Here is an example of one of my learnings, from about 20 years ago. I was in Beijing, China, presenting a report to a room of about 30 Chinese IT specialists, via simultaneous translation. Somebody’s phones rings, and to my surprise they answered it and start talking. A little later, somebody else’s phone rings and they answer it too. “How rude!” I thought to myself. But then, I realised that in Beijing it is Chinese people who decide what is rude and what is acceptable – not visitors from the UK. ☺