Book Review: The Culture Map – Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures.


In this book, written by Erin Meyer, a systematic step-by-step approach is presented to understanding the most common business communication challenges that arise from cultural differences, and offers steps for dealing with them more effectively. The goal of this book is to help us improve our ability to decode different facets of culture and to enhance our effectiveness in dealing with them.

The twenty-five main takeaways I got out of this book are:

  1. Many well-intentioned people do not educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that if they focus on individual differences, that will be enough. However, if your business relies on your ability to work successfully with people from around the world, you need to have an appreciation for cultural differences as well as respect for individual differences. Both are essential. And as if this complexity weren’t enough, cultural and individual differences are often wrapped up with differences among organizations, industries, professions, and other groups.
  2. The eight scales presented in this book are: Communicating (low-context vs. high-context); Evaluating (directive negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback); Persuading (principles-first vs. applications-first); Leading (egalitarian vs. hierarchical); Deciding (consensual vs. top-down); Trusting (task-based vs. relationship-based); Disagreeing (confrontational vs. avoids confrontation); and Scheduling (linear-time vs. flexible time). A bell curve within these scales illustrates the range of what is considered appropriate and acceptable business behavior within a particular culture.
  3. The crucial perspective is cultural relativity – it is the key to understanding the impact of culture on human interactions. If an executive wants to build and manage global teams that can work together successfully, he needs to understand not just how individuals from his own people experience people from various international cultures, but also how those international cultures perceive one another. Part of your personal style comes from the culture where you spent the first days of your life, another from the culture where you attended college and held your first job, another from your father’s culture, and still another from your mother’s culture. It is all relative – when considering the impact of cultural differences on your dealings with other people, what matters is not so much the absolute positioning of a person’s culture on a particular scale, but rather the relative positioning in comparison to you.
  4. Most of us have a protective instinct for the culture we consider our own, and, though we may criticize it bitterly ourselves, we may become easily incensed if someone from outside the culture dares to do so. So, when interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act. Use all the available resources to understand how the cultural framework you are working with is different from your own – and only then react.
  5. Communicating across cultures – the skills involved in being an effective communicator vary dramatically from one culture to another. It is also worth to highlight the fact that being a good listener is just as important for effective communication as being a good speaker. And both of these essential skills are equally variable from one culture to another. In Japan, ‘KY’ stands for kuuyi yomenai, which means “one who cannot read the air” – in other words, a person sorely lacking the ability to read between the lines. In Japan, if you can’t read the air, you are not a good listener.
  6. In low-context cultures, effective communication must be simple, clear and explicit in order to effectively pass the message, and most communicators will obey this requirement, usually without being fully conscious of it (United States, Canada, Australia). High-context cultures tend to have a long shared history. Usually they are relationship-based oriented societies where networks of connections are passed from generation to generation, generating more shared context among community members. The more low-context the culture, the more people have a tendency to put everything in writing.
  7. The interplay of language and history – languages reflect the communication styles of the cultures that use those languages. For example, Japanese and Hindi (as spoken in New Delhi) are both high-context languages, in which a relatively high percentage of the words can be interpreted in multiple ways based on how and when they are used (in Hindi the word ‘kal‘ means both tomorrow and yesterday, so you have to hear the whole sentence to understand in which context it has been used). There are seven times more words in English than in French (500,000 versus 70,000), which suggests that French relies on contextual clues to resolve semantic ambiguities to a greater extent than English. Many words in French have multiple possible meanings (for example, ‘ennuye’ can mean either ‘bored’ or ‘bothered’ depending on the context in which it is used, which means that the listener is responsible for discerning the intention of the speaker). Expressions like ‘sous-entendu‘ in French or ‘sobreentendido‘ in Spanish speak also about this. English is, then, a lower context language than the Romance languages descended from Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese), while the Romance languages are lower context than most Asian languages.
  8. The United States, a country with a mere few hundred years of shared history, has been shaped by enormous inflows of immigrants from various countries around the world, all with different histories, different languages, and different backgrounds. Because they had little shared context, Americans learned quickly that if they wanted to pass a message, they had to take it as explicit and clear as possible, with little room for ambiguity and misunderstanding.
  9. If you are from a low-context culture, you may perceive a high-context communicator as secretive, lacking transparency, or unable to communicate effectively. On the other hand, if you are from a high-context culture, you might perceive a low-context communicator as inappropiately stating the obvious (“You didn’t have to say it! We all understood!”), or even as condescending and patronizing.
  10. The many faces of polite – some cultures that are low-context and explicit may be cryptically indirect with negative criticism, while other cultures that speaks between the lines may be explicit, straight talkers when telling you what you did wrong. People from all cultures believe in “constructive criticism“; yet that is considered constructive in one culture may be viewed as destructive in another. Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways.
  11. Direct cultures tend to use what linguists call upgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly. By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe and slightly. Also deliberate understatements such as ‘We are not quite there yet‘ to mean ‘This is nowhere close to complete‘, or ‘This is just my opinion‘ to mean ‘Anyone who considers this issue will immediately agree‘.
  12. What does it mean to be polite? – Politeness is in the eye of the beholder. Giving feedback – especially when it is negative – is a sensitive business at the best of times. It can be made a lot worse if the person receiving the feedback believes he or she has been spoken rudely. Precisely what constitutes rudeness, however, varies enormously from place to place. The sophisticated global manager learns how to adapt – to alter his behavior a bit, to practice humility, to test the waters before speaking up, to assume goodwill on the part of others, and to invest time and energy in building good relationships.
  13. Why versus How – the art of persuasion is one of the most crucial business skills. Without the ability to persuade others to support your ideas, you won’t be able to attract the support you need to turn those ideas into realities. The art of persuasion is one that is profoundly culture-based. Our ability to persuade others depends not simply on the strength of our message but on how we build arguments and the persuasive techniques we employ.
  14. Two styles of reasoning: principles-first versus applications-first – the first one, sometimes also referred as deductive reasoning, derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts. On the other hand, with applications-first reasoning, sometimes called inductive reasoning,  general conclusions are reached based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world. Most people are capable of practicing both approaches, but your habitual pattern of reasoning is heavily influenced by the kind of thinking emphasized in your culture’s education structure. Applications-first thinkers like to receive practical examples up front; they will extract learning from these examples. In the same vein, applications-first learners are used to ‘case method’, whereby they first read a case study describing a real-life story about a business problem and its solution, and then induce general lessons from it.
  15. Holistic-thinking: the Asian approach to persuasion – Asians have what we refer to as holistic thought patterns, while Westerners tend to have what we call specific approach. Chinese people think from macro to micro, whereas Western people think from micro to macro. For example, when writing an address, the Chinese write in sequence province, city, district, block, gate number. The Westerners do just the opposite – they start with the number of a single house and gradually work their way up to the city and state. In the same name, Chinese put the surname first, whereas Westerners do it the other way around. And Chinese put the year before month and date, which is the opposite in the West.
  16. Leadership, hierarchy and power – Do you prefer an egalitarian or hierarchical management approach? No matter what your nationality, the answer is probably the same. Most people throughout the world claim to prefer egalitarian style, and a large majority of managers say that they use an egalitarian approach themselves. But evidence from the cross-cultural trenches show a different story.
  17. Geert Hofstede, one of the most famous cross-cultural researchers in history, developed the term ‘power distance‘ while analyzing 100,000 management surveys at IBM in the 1970s. He defined power distance as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally“.  He also looked at power distance in families and various other social structures, such as tribes or communities. In a more recent study called the Globe Project, other researchers conducted thousands of interviews across sixty-two countries during which they tested and calibrated Hofstede’s data on the power distance scales again. Power distance is related, in part, to the signals that are used to mark power within an organization or other social group. Once you understand the power distance messages that your actions are sending, you can make an informed choice about what behaviors to change. Egalitarian means low power distance, while hierarchical means high power distance.
  18. The Vikings were surprisingly egalitarian. When settling in Iceland, they founded one of the world’s early democracies. The entire community was invited to the debating hall to trash out the hot topics of the day, followed by a vote, with each person’s opinion carrying equal weight. The countries most influenced by Vikings consistently rank as some of the most egalitarian and consensus-oriented cultures in the world today.
  19. Regarding religion, countries with Protestant cultures tend to fall further to the egalitarian side of the scale than those with a more Catholic tradition. One interpretation of this pattern is that the Protestant Reformation largely removed the traditional hierarchy from the church. In many strains of Protestantism, the individual speaks directly to God instead of speaking to God through the priest, the bishop and the pope. Meanwhile, Asian cultures tend to be more hierarchical, which can be a consequence of the influence of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, who believe that mankind would be in harmony with the universe if anyone understood their rank in society and observed the behaviors proper to that rank. Of course, all of these historical observations are dramatic oversimplifications, as each country has a rich and complex history that helps shape its leadership beliefs.
  20. In order to understand the Confucian concept of hierarchy, it is important to think not just about the lower level person’s responsibility to obey, but also about the heavy responsibility of the higher person to protect and care for those under him. The leader’s responsibility for caring and teaching is just as strong as the follower’s responsibility to defer and follow directions.
  21. In today’s global business environment, it is not enough to be either an egalitarian leader or a hierarchical leader. You need to be both – to develop the flexibility to manage up and down the cultural scales. There are also a few steps to take without completely compromising the authority of your position: ask your team to meet without you; when you call a meeting, give clear instructions beforehand about how you would like your meeting to work and what questions you plan to ask; if you are the boss, remember that your role is to chair the meeting.
  22. Who decides and how? – In a large majority of countries, being egalitarian correlates with valuing consensus. In a consensual culture, the decision making may take quite a long time, since everyone is consulted. By contrast, in a top-down culture, the decision-making responsibility is invested in an individual. Either of these systems work, as long as everyone understands and follows the rules of the game.
  23. The Japanese Ringi system: hierarchical but ultra-consensual – this is a management technique in which low-level managers discuss a new idea among themselves and come to a consensus before presenting it to managers one level higher through a document called the ringisho. If you are working  with a global team that includes members from both consensual and top-down cultures, you can avoid problems by explicit discussing and agreeing upon a decision-making method during early stages of your collaboration.
  24. Cognitive trust and affective trust – the first one is based on the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability. This is trust that comes from the head. Affective trust, on the other hand, arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. This type of trust comes from the heart. In some cultures, it is difficult to separate the opinion from the person. If you attack my idea, I feel you are attacking me also – which means I am likely to want to shy away from open disagreement lest it damage our relationship.
  25. Putting the culture map to work – the way we are conditioned to see our own culture seems so completely obvious and commonplace that it is difficult to imagine that another culture might do things differently. It is only when you start to identify what is typical in your culture, but different from others, that you can begin to open a dialogue of sharing, learning, and ultimately understanding.

Overall, leaders have always need to understand human nature and personality differences to be successful in business – that is nothing new. What is new is the requirement for twenty-first century leaders to be prepared to understand a wider, richer array of work styles than ever before and to be able to determine what aspects of interaction are simply a result of personality and which are a result of differences in cultural perspective.

As globalization transforms the way we work, we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers, and colleagues from around the world. The range of human cultures can be a source of endless surprise and discovery – a fount of remarkable experiences and continual learning that can never be exhausted.

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