Mapping Cultures

Apr 16 2018

In The Culture Map, Erin Meyers provides a clear and easy-to-read introduction to cross-cultural differences, focusing on the needs of global business and the leading and management of people across countries.

To be honest, much of her book, and most of the cross-cultural dimensions she discusses, draw heavily on the work of Geert Hofstede. To be more frank, Hofstede’s data is based on many more cases and is in the public domain (although perhaps older). For comparison, Geert Hofstede has identified six dimensions called Power distance, Individualism, Masculinity (I prefer “Toughness”), Uncertainty avoidance, Long-term orientation and Indulgence.

However, Erin Meyer’s book is more practical than academic and will be a much easier read for many casual business readers looking for insights to help them understand people and culture. The author discusses eight key dimensions of culture that have a significant impact on business interactions.

The first is the dimension of “Communicating”, which strongly differentiates Western and Asian cultures based on the importance of context in communications. This is perhaps the most important cultural dimension of all. Western cultures are low context, meaning that communication is highly explicit with most information transferred by the content of a communication. This contrasts with most Asian cultures which are high context, relying much more on implicit communication through the social and cultural context, and much less on what is explicitly said (e.g., Japan, Indonesia, Thailand).

Erin Meyer’s second dimension is that of “Evaluating”, based on different styles of feedback in business. In some cultures, such as those of Northern Europe, people prefer very direct negative feedback, while in other cultures, such as many Asian countries, a less direct approach is preferred to avoid any sense of confrontation. UK and USA sit between these two styles.

The third dimension is “Persuading” differentiating cultures who value principles (theory) versus those who value application (practice). Many South European countries prefer to understand principles first (hence the popularity of semiotic theory in France and Italy) while other cultures prefer to start with the application of ideas. USA is much more about the practical than the principles.

The fourth dimension is that of “Leading”, separating cultures which have an egalitarian approach to leadership and those which are more hierarchical. North Europe (e.g., Scandinavia) and Australia are very egalitarian in their approach, where it is OK to disagree with the boss and decision-making is independent. Asian cultures are mostly hierarchical, where people defer to the boss’s opinion, seek their approval and communication follows a clear hierarchy (e.g., Thailand). Again, USA and UK sit between these two extremes.

The next dimension is “Deciding” where countries like Japan, Indonesia and Sweden are very consensual in the way decisions are made, while countries like India, China and Nigeria have a very top-down approach to decision-making. Once again, USA and UK sit between these two extremes.

The sixth dimension is “Trusting”, where some countries base Trust on specific tasks, while others rely much more on relationships. USA and Northern Europe focus on tasks, while Asian and Middle Eastern cultures focus on relationships.

The seventh dimension is that of “Disagreeing”, where countries in North Europe and, for example, Israel are much more confrontational in style while those in Asia, most especially Japan, Indonesia and Thailand, avoid confrontation at all costs. Once again, USA and UK sit between the two extremes. This dimension seems very similar to that of “Evaluating”, and both relate to the difference between Individualism and Collectivism.

The final dimension is that of “Scheduling”. While countries in Northern Europe see time in a very linear way, India, Africa and Middle East see time as much more flexible (and in many cases circular). Although Erin Meyer says that Japan has a very linear approach to time, that may be correct in the context of business. However, outside of business, Japanese have a much more flexible approach to time.

Erin Meyer’s book is a very readable and useful introduction to cultural difference, and a very helpful guide to those in business who want to develop a better understanding of how behavioral styles shape the differences between their offices around the world. But if your interests are to understand from a marketing or academic perspective, then other books and sources may be more useful and robust.

REFERENCES

The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures by Erin Meyer

Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov

Comparing countries (based on Hofstede’s Six Dimensions)

 “Getting to Si, Ja, Our, Hai and Da” by Erin Meyer in Harvard Business Review, December 2015

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