CULTURE MAPPING: A TOOL FOR FUTURE BUSINESS / PART 1
Kirjoittanut: Seungyeon Shin - tiimistä SYNTRE.
The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business
Written by Katrina Cirule, Seungyeon Shin and Flora Lang
As organizations are getting more diverse and the business world is more interconnected and virtual than ever, more challenges are appearing when it comes to handling a multicultural environment in a harmonized way.
“Future-Focused Leadership Involves the Ability to Decode How People Think, Communicate, and Get Things Done Around the World.” – Erin Meyer
The Culture Map provides 8 dimensions that enables you to understand your own culture and its influences on global teamwork by analyzing a culture’s position in the scale and relation to other ones. Meyer (2022) highlights that “Future-focused leadership involves decoding how people think, communicate, and get things done around the world.” Obviously, every individual is different and there are subcultures in every country, moreover, we have geographical differences, generational differences, and organizational differences. But we are not focusing on an individual level, but we talk about how society perceives an individual behavior. (Meyer 2022)
The aim of this essay is to assess the first 4 scales shown in the book, The Culture Map: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, and Leading. In each scale, the the degree to which cultures are high- or low-context, a preference for frank versus diplomatic criticism, theory-based versus practice-based, egalitarian or hierarchical will be looked at.
2.1 Low and High-context cultures
In the western part of the world, for instance, the USA, people are used to communicate as literally and explicitly as possible. Clarity is a sign of good communication, and the accountability relies on the communicator: “If you don’t understand, it is my fault.” However, in the eastern countries, such as India or Korea, communication is all about reading the air. There, implicit communication is more common, which means that reading between the lines and hearing what has not been said plays a vital role when exchanging the message. The reasoning for the differences lies in the cultures of communicating: low-context and high-context (see Figure 1). (Meyer 2014, 34)
The high and low-context culture framework was first introduced in 1976 by Edward T. Hall, an American 20th century anthropologist. He proposed that the cultures of communication can typically fall into two categories. In low-context cultures the communication is simple and explicit. The philosophy of low-context communication can be seen in the already mentioned example of the USA: “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then repeat what you have just told.” On the other hand, high-context cultures base their communication on the unconscious assumptions about common references points. It is nuanced and layered. Since the key is the implicit knowledge between the group of people, it is often even inappropriate to transfer some messages too explicitly. (United Language Group 2020)
FIGURE 1. Communication scale. Countries listed on the Communication scale between low and high-context cultures. (Meyer 2014)
2.2 Reasons Behind Contextual Differences
The differences in the culture of communication can partly be explained with the interplay of language. As Erin Meyer notes in her book: “Languages reflect the communication styles of the cultures that use the languages.” In high-context cultures one must hear all the context to understand the meaning of one word. This reflects in, for instance, French language. French has around 7 times less words than English (70 000 compared to 500 000), meaning that one word can have various different meanings depending on the context. This also results in learning to use second-degree meanings when expressing oneself. That is, finding what has actually been said with the words used. Therefore, the listener is responsible for being attentive of the intention of the speaker. (Meyer 2014, 37)
Not only the system of language, but also historical and geographical aspects play a role when comparing the contextual differences. For example, the USA is rated as the lowest-context culture, which can be explained by the mix of cultures and languages. People had to learn to adapt and one way to find common grounds was to be as to the point as possible. However, high-context cultures tend to have more relationship-based societies, where the common knowledge is passed from generation to generation. Similarity of education, hierarchical role, religion, ethnicity, and history are all taken into consideration. For example, Japan, which is the highest-context culture on the Communication scale, is an island society with a homogeneous population. Over the thousands of years of shared history, the inhabitants have learned to “read the air” of what is said and unsaid unconsciously. (Meyer 2022)
2.3 The Meaning of the Positioning on the Communication Scale
Even though Erin Meyer’s scale holds a very practical tool for ensuring a better understanding of each other, it is also important to realize that one can be both an explicit and implicit (low-context and high-context) communicator. Most cultures, whether it be between nationalities, countries, companies or generations, share the characteristics of both extremes, and usually fall in between the two categories. It depends on the parties involved, the occasion, and the aspects mentioned above. Nevertheless, the general answer to the question “where am I on the scale?” can be found by answering “what makes a good communicator?”. The qualities one finds most valuable, will most likely indicate one’s position on the Communication scale.
However, when comparing how high or low context one is, one must keep in mind the great words by A. Einstein that it is, indeed, “all relative”. The most crucial part when interacting with others is not one’s culture’s positioning on the scale, rather than the relative positioning in comparison with the other. That gap can be an indicator about the differences one might face when communicating, which can help one be more prepared for the possible challenges. (Meyer 2014, 44)
2.4 Strategies for multicultural settings
When looking at the overall strategies for multicultural collaboration, it is vital to acknowledge that there is a high possibility to find someone who positions even more on the right side of the Communication scale. That can be a great reminder for one to appreciate the skill of being an agile communicator in the current global business world.
Here are some useful tips when interacting with a higher-context communicator:
- listen- it is not just how one talks, but also how one listens;
- look for implicit cues, such as body language or tone of voice- the things untold can say more than the words out there;
- ask open-ended questions- for a high-context communicator it can be hard to give a certain “yes” or “no”. Open-ended questions can create space to give an answer by not being blunt and direct;
- self-depreciation- having a laugh about oneself or making positive comments about another’s culture can be a tool for asking for more clarity.
On the other hand, these notions can be helpful when working with lower-context cultures:
- be as transparent, clear, and specific as possible- by explaining one’s reasons, doing a recap or asking for clarification, one can gain an image of a truthful and interested person;
- if coming from a higher-context culture, notice when expecting for the other person to read between the lines- those can be indicators to be more explicit to be understood better;
- remember the “American way”- say what will be said, say it, then do a recap. This thought flow is easier to receive. (Meyer 2014, 50; 53)
After considering the practicalities to boost the quality of communication, one can wonder about these 3 scenarios. In which of these cases do the most misunderstandings happen:
A- a low-context culture communicator with a low-context culture;
B- a low-context culture communicator with a high-context culture communicator;
C- a high-context culture communicator with a high-context culture communicator?
It turns out that the most misunderstandings happen in the situation C between people who come from at least two different high-context cultures. The cultural contexts which have such a huge impact on understanding each other have different roots, therefore it holds the highest risk of miscommunication. Being aware of these risks and tips to avoid them is crucial, since the best time to develop these processes is before the miscommunication occurs. (Meyer 2014, 50-55)
In the Nordic Business Forum, Meyer mentioned that some people have more sensitive skin to negative feedback, which is partially related to the culture they were raised in. However, in some cultures, people do not take direct negative feedback offensively but take it as a gift. Cross-cultural misunderstandings that are coming from negative feedback can be preventable by understanding the 2nd dimension, Evaluating. The Evaluating scale shows countries’ preference for direct negative feedback and Indirect negative feedback. It can be often misperceived as the first dimension of Communicating, but countries can be positioned differently on two scales. Low-context countries can be assumed to be tolerable of direct negative feedback, and high-context countries vice versa. This chapter aims for learning about different countries’ positions in the Evaluating figure and the correlation between the communication scale and the Evaluating figure.
We have all already learned how crucial it is to give and take feedback constructively in learning organizations. It might be easier to give positive feedback but how about negative feedback? How to do it properly while taking different cultural backgrounds into consideration? To begin with, what differentiates direct and indirect feedback? Direct negative feedback is the feedback that the negative messages are not softened but stand solely there while it is used with the words such as absolutely, and totally, making it stronger. On the other hand, indirect negative feedback is feedback that softens up the criticism while using the words such as sort of and a bit.
3.1 Low context and Direct negative feedback
Countries like the Netherlands and Australia prefer giving negative feedback directly as well as having explicit and simple communication (Meyer 2014, 71). People from such cultures are more likely to be resilient to direct negative feedback, as they would not take it personally or offensively. It seems easy to catch how to work with people from such culture people as they communicate directly and at the same time do not hesitate to share negative feedback either. However, that does not mean that you can be rude, or feedback can be delivered aggressively or bluntly. If you are the one who is coming from a high-context and indirect negative feedback culture, put extra attention to not simply mimicking people who are from direct negative feedback without understanding subtle rules. It can lead you to be seen as a person who is insensitive(Meyer 2014, 72-73).
3.2 High context and Direct negative feedback
One interesting example is shared by Sandi Carlson who is British and her experience working with a Russian colleague. Mainly it was about this young Russian woman named Anna Golov, and her harsh criticism and inconsiderate attitudes toward others(Meyer 2014, 74). It generated misunderstandings among the team members and affected the team negatively. Meyer could not experience such criticism from Russian coordinators, but she got several similar complaints like Carlson’s comments. In countries like Russia where there is a big power distance between boss and subordinates, people tend to accept power inequality. For example, Golov says the feedback can differ a lot depending on whom she is speaking with. If the boss is giving feedback to subordinates, it can be very direct and frank, whereas if you are a subordinate who gives feedback to the boss, it can be strategic and polite(Meyer 2014, 75-77).
3.3 Low context and Indirect negative feedback
If you had a chance to work with Americans, have you ever confused about their feedback? Positive words like “Excellent” and “Great” seem overused, and they can often mislead to be taken as an exaggeration(Meyer 2014, 78-79). Moreover, in a country like America which has an explicit and low-context communication style, it is particularly hard for others to comprehend exchanging feedback with them as they prefer indirect negative feedback(Meyer 2014, 77). Meyer recommends firstly being explicit and low-context with both positive and negative feedback, as starting positive feedback first and using the words like “sort of” or “a bit”. Secondly, try to be balanced in the amount of positive and negative feedback you give. In addition, it is always good to explain your cultural behavior in cultural terms, for example, by giving others information about your communication style based on your culture (Meyer 2014, 81-82).
Then, how do we give feedback in Proakatemia, Finland? In Proakatemia, people use the feedback tool Motorola not only at the end of Pajas but also on a daily basis. Motorola (Toivonen 2014, 71) includes 5 questions: what went well, what went badly, what learned, what will do better next time, and what will take into practice. It is a useful tool to be used to give direct feedback politely and it is a valuable skill that we all can have (Saraketo & Nevalainen 2017).
FIGURE 2. The country mapping tool (Meyer 2022). Culture Graph of Finland and the United States.
3.4 High context and Indirect negative feedback
For people who grew up in high context and indirect negative feedback like in Korea and Indonesia, it is almost a humiliation to get negative feedback in front of others(Meyer 2014, p.82). Therefore, any negative feedback should be given in private, no matter how you soften the criticism. It is interesting that this rule applies to positive feedback as well because it can be embarrassing to be pointed out individually as such cultures tend to have low individualism. (Meyer 2014, 83) Meyer’s Indonesian friend Aini suggests a couple of strategies to give negative feedback to those who do not have thick skin for direct negative feedback. Firstly, give the feedback slowly and gradually rather than giving it at once. Secondly, actively use foods or drinks to blur the negative feedback, for instance, do it at lunchtime. And lastly, actively mention good examples that the person has done, reminding why he/she was good at it so that they can think of things to improve by themselves(Meyer 2014, 84-86).
FIGURE 3. Four Quadrants Map (Meyer 2022). Communicating scale against the Evaluating scale.
4.1 Principles-first versus application-first
Meyer, just as seen before, puts persuasion on a scale. The two ends of the scale are principles-first and application-first, and all cultures can be placed somewhere on this line. Principles-first countries initially focus on the facts, opinions, and data, the question “why” is important. On the other hand, application-first cultures aim to summarize, start with examples, and keep short, the question “how” is more important. Most parts of the EU can be put into the principles first cultures, the Nordics and South America are in the middle of the scale, while the Anglo-Saxon cultures are more application first. (Meyer 2014, 93-94)
It is good to mention that while most people are using both methods and can adapt to the situation, “your habitual pattern for reasoning by the kind of thinking emphasized in your culture’s educational structure”. As an example, in Canada where the educational system follows the application-first method, the culture itself will be more comfortable with it as well, and the other way around when it comes to Italy, a strongly principles-first culture. Also, later, even subconsciously one makes judgment calls based on the way they were presented with a solution and not necessarily the solution itself. When working with international teams, one ought to look at portions of the scale, rather than look at the scale as a whole. As an example, both Australia and the USA are on the right side, on the application-first side. However, when looking closer one sees that the USA is further right, meaning that when comparing to each other, they have slight differences in delivering the message. This is called cultural relativity. (Meyer 2014, 94-96)
Persuasion is just one segment of the culture map, that makes working with an international team even more difficult and with it the decision-making slower. When presenting to these global teams it is helpful to mix it up between explanations and parameters (for principles-first), and practical examples, and short summaries (for application-first). Explaining and creating awareness of the persuasion scale, involving bicultural team members, and having patience and flexibility can make the job easier. (Meyer 2014, 103) When assembling a team, one should look at the goals and whether the goals correspond with the idea of international teams. If the goal is speed and efficiency, international teams might be more of a burden than a benefit. (Meyer 2014, 114)
4.2 Specific approach versus holistic approach
The previously mentioned examples that have a somewhat logical placement of the scale from principles-first to application-first were all from the western world. Western countries belong to cultures with a specific approach. On the other hand, most Asian cultures belong to cultures with a holistic approach, meaning that they don’t focus on separate parts, but on the whole, on the bigger picture. (Meyer 2014, 104) In specific cultures giving out the facts, tasks and expectations is the most important, so everyone knows what to work on. In holistic cultures, it is better to introduce the task as a whole, and how and why the segment that needs to be worked on fits into the big puzzle. (Meyer 2014, 112-113)
4.3 Persuasion and decision-making
Persuasion and decision-making correlate with one another, so it might be worthwhile to look at not only techniques but also leadership styles. In Harvard Business Review’s article, Williams and Miller mentioned 5 different leadership categories for one to recognize the right technique for persuasion as it can be tailored for the leadership styles, accordingly.
These kinds of leaders are enthusiastic, get excited quickly, and like going into details and practicalities, however, when it comes to the final decision, they are hesitant and are reliant on the information they receive, not just emotions. When one deals with a charismatic, to persuade them it’s best not to engage in the excitement and keep to honest and short answers. Having a visual aid can be beneficial as well.
These kinds of leaders are intelligent and cerebral but are heavily reliant on data and are slow to make decisions. They also tend to avoid risks. When dealing with a thinker it’s best to bring as much information and data targeting different angles as possible and be patient.
These kinds of leaders challenge the information and data presented to them, especially when it collides with their own beliefs. They can be demanding and rebellious. When dealing with a skeptic, it’s good to get to know them in advance, before one needs to persuade them and gain their trust as well as bring out reliable sources.
Followers tend to make decisions based on previous experiences. If something had turned out to be a good decision in the past, they would look for a pattern when making a decision in the present. Followers and cautious and responsible. When dealing with a follower it’s best to present similar situations from the past that were successful. Giving some kind of certainty might be a winning move.
These kinds of leaders will solely focus on data and would make their decisions unemotionally and analytically. They would quickly disregard anything risky and stay in a safe zone. To persuade a controller, one needs to either be an expert or involve one. One needs to be calm, firm, and honestly deliver the information, while expecting the worst and hoping for the best.
(Williams & Miller 2002)
In the first part of this segment of persuasion, the global perspectives and cultures were looked at, and in the second the leadership styles. However, at the end of the day, these are only tools and information. The outcome will depend on individuals from both the persuasive and persuaded part. A leader cannot be solely part of one category with all its details, and culture mapping do not always fully represent a certain individual of that culture.
5.1 Egalitarian versus hierarchical
The two ends of the scale when it comes to leadership are egalitarian and hierarchical, according to Meyer. Egalitarian cultures such as the Nordics and Anglo-Saxon countries are following more of a holacratic approach where the power distance is small, the manager or boss is almost completely equal to the workers, one doesn’t have to strictly follow the hierarchical chain when contacting colleagues and workers can take initiative by themselves. On the other side of the scale, at the hierarchical leadership, Asian and African countries can be found. In those cultures, the power distance is larger, the manager or boss stands out by actions and looks, and one must follow the hierarchical chain both up and down when contacting colleagues. South American countries and other European countries are located in the middle of the scale. (Meyer 2014, 125-126; 133)
Although creating awareness of the leadership scale can be helpful to everyone impacted by working in an international team, the responsibility is on the leaders especially when they are minorities, in a new culture. “Once you understand the power distance messages your actions are sending, you can make an informed choice about what behaviors to change. (Meyer 2014, 124; 132-133)
5.2 Why do certain cultures belong to certain parts of the scale?
Meyer observed the scale from a historical point of view and found that there is a logical explanation for why certain countries belong to certain segments of the scale. For example, most Nordic countries have a Viking history. Vikings were one of the first democratic cultures which didn’t only have elections for the king to be chosen, but even women could take part in these elections. On the other hand, other European countries were affected by the Roman Empire, which had a very detailed hierarchy both status-wise and look-wise. (Meyer 2014, 125-126)
5.3 “The boss is always right” versus The Law of Jante
Asian cultures have the saying: the boss is always right. Even when the boss is wrong, he is always right. The reasons are that he is a male, he is older, he is better educated, and he is the boss. Saying that the boss is right is just a sign of respect, no matter how enabling it might sound. (Lim 2021) No wonder Asian cultures are so hierarchical. However, in the Nordics, one lives by another code of conduct, the Law of Jante. The Law of Jante consists of 10 laws that establish equality and more than that, the equity of the people that live in that culture. In an oversimplified explanation, these laws are responsible for the Nordics’ egalitarian leadership style. (Sandemose 1933)
FIGURE 4. The Law of Jante. (Sandemose 1933)
- Cultural Profile
One fun way to learn more about multi-cultural communication is to dig deeper into one’s own culture of communication. Erin Meyer has created the Personal Profile tool for that exact purpose. The test consists of two parts: cultural (personal) profile and the nationalities’ overall rating. The results display one’s placement on the scale based on the answers in the test, and also comments more on the meaning of each scale.
The authors of this essay, Soonie, Flora, and Katrina, also did the Personal Profile tool to find out what kind of differences or similarities they have between them. For Katrina, most of the results had a tendency to rank on the left side of each scale, whereas, Soonie and Flora located on the more middle-left part. A very noticeable difference could be seen in the culture of leading. Soonie’s answer ranked in the more hierarchical part of the Leading scale. This can be explained both by personal reasons and her native culture in Korea, since Korea is located as one of the most hierarchical leading nationalities.
The Cultural Profile test results can be a useful tool to gain more understanding of each other, which can improve our communication in the long term. Nevertheless, it is also crucial to keep in mind that Meyers’ tool is mostly based on the characteristics of certain nationalities. This can differ between one’s own culture of communication, since not only nationality, but other aspects, such as personality, can have an effect. (Meyer 2022)
The main reason to learn these 4 dimensions: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading and Leading is to gain understanding how to do cross-cultural communication appropriately, ultimately to use these knowledge in our team, daily life, and so on. The Culture Map book is revealing and explaining 8 dimensions, and those dimensions are all interconnected. As it is mentioned above, global leadership is about how to communicate and get things done. Answers can be found by exploring different countries’ communication style, the way how they give negative feedback, what kind of leaderships are used to persuade others when it comes to decision making, how different cultures approach tasks, and how people in leadership positions lead and approach their workers. Again the question is how we take it into practice. How to break through the invisible boundaries of global business? It can start from here in our team SYNTRE.
Lim, V. 2021. People think the boss is always right’: Workplace bullying is not uncommon in Singapore, experts say. Read on 11.10.2022. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/workplace-bullying-toxic-boss-job-singapore-wwf-noc-booksactually-2289066
Meyer, E. 2014. The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. New York: Public Affairs.
Meyer, E. 2022. The Country Mapping Tool. Read on 13.10.2022. https://erinmeyer.com/cmtda/?refCode=vBcrVX
Meyer, E. 2022. The Cultural Profile Tool. Read on 13.10.2022. https://erinmeyer.com/pbtda/?refCode=vBcrVX
Ojala, O. 2022. “Future-Focused Leadership Involves the Ability to Decode How People Think, Communicate, and Get Things Done Around the World.” – Erin Meyer. Read on 09.10.2022. https://www.nbforum.com/newsroom/blog/future-focused-leadership-erin-meyer/
Sandemose, A. 1933. A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks.
Saraketo, H. & Nevalainen, T. 2017. Theories and experiences on team learning, Proakatemia Academic Adventures. Tampere: Tampere University of Applied Sciences.
Toivonen, H. 2014. Friend Leadership – A Visual Inspiration Book. Pellervo.
United Language Group. 2020. Communicating in High Context vs. Low Context Cultures. Read on 13.10.2022. https://www.unitedlanguagegroup.com/blog/communicating-high-context-vs-low-context-cultures
Williams, G. & Miller, R. 2002. Change the Way You Persuade. Uploaded on 2.5.2002. Read on 9.10.2022. https://hbr.org/2002/05/change-the-way-you-persuade