Beyond the language barrier with a Culture Map

The way we work is transformed continually. Globalisation and the development of the internet has given smaller companies the ability to export goods and services much more easily. It means also that you and I can work from almost anywhere. While a downside of outsourcing has been to remove some jobs from developed countries, it has also offered opportunities to skilled workers in the less developed parts of the world.

Opportunities like these can bring problems along with them; the ability to decode cultural differences was not taught to us in school. To work effectively with clients, suppliers and colleagues from around the world, we need to be able to comprehend the cultural differences that inevitably arise during our efforts to operate transnationally, and sometimes perhaps across cultures in our own countries.

Professional translators are aware that translation of a text requires that the underlying message should be conveyed in the target language in a culturally sensitive way. A new book, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, could help not just fledgling translators but also managers navigate through the wildly different cultural realities in which they find themselves through the vagaries of international business.

Tim Shadbolt, Mayor of Invercargill, the southernmost town in New Zealand, told a story of going through the ceremony of exchanging business cards with some Japanese businessmen. Shadbolt smiled and bowed politely, grasping the proffered card with two hands and then stood upright and placed the card in the back pocket of his trousers. That was a no-no. Shadbolt should have placed the Japanese businessman’s card in his shirt pocket, close to his heart, not next to his bottom. That company did not send anyone else to Invercargill.

Those who have been in business meetings with people from China may well have noticed some differences in the way the meeting was conducted from a meeting with people in their own country. People raised with a Chinese cultural heritage tend to use silence differently, waiting a little longer than westerners before launching into speech. Their understanding is summed up by a saying quoted by Meyer, “You have two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth. You should use them accordingly.”

Knowing when to speak, allowing colleagues from elsewhere a little more space, speaking less, when you’re bursting to get your point across: skills like these can be counterintuitive. Painting the overseas colleagues in one-dimensional terms – so easy to do – can lead to simplified and erroneous assumptions.

Developing a Cultural Map

To help negotiate this complexity of cultural variation, Erin Meyer has developed a tool she calls the ‘Cultural Map’. As with all societal theories, these are broad brush indicators which reveal cultural trends rather than defining any given individual. Constructed of eight continua that represent the behaviours where cultural gaps can be at their most obvious, they should be used to decode how culture influences day-to-day cooperation by comparing the relative position of one nationality to another on each scale, according to Meyer. The continua are:

Low context to High context

Direct negative feedback to Indirect negative feedback

Egalitarian to Hierarchical

Consensual to Top down

Task based to Relationship based

Confrontational to Avoids confrontation

Linear time to Flexible time

Holistic thinkers to Specific thinkers

Taken individually, they may seem not so useful. However when used together these comparisons have the possibility of painting a series of pictures that could ease the discussion process, making for more successful business.

For those getting to grips with variations within these continua, the Harvard Business Review have developed an infographic revealing the contrasts between some pairs of cultures.
Culture Maps - comparing management cultures

The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, Erin Meyer, PublicAffairs (May 2014)