Book Notes – The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

In my technical leadership training, participants want advice on leading multicultural teams. This was already a challenge for leaders with offices in multiple locations, and it accelerated with remote work. A resource I frequently share is “The Culture Map“, (N.B. affiliate link) by Erin Meyer, which highlights eight ways that country cultures influence behaviours. Another great reference I like is Hofstede’s cultural dimensions.

A good example of cultural differences is highlighted in this meme below.

Key Ideas

In this article, I want to highlight the key cultural differences as described in “The Culture Map“.

Communicating – Low Context and High Context

Different cultures communicate more directly with words (with low context), while others communicate less directly with words (high context). Cultures with a higher context communication style put more weight into a conversation’s non-verbal context. Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

You might consider cultures on the low-context spectrum as “straight talking.” Individuals typically value more direct communication and believe people should say what they mean and mean what they say.

Cultures on the other side of the spectrum (high context) pay as much attention to what isn’t said as what is. Some examples might include where people are seated, how people dress and reading between the lines.

If you are from an Anglo-Saxon culture (e.g. US, UK, Australia) which is a low-context culture, then a good counter-example would be to watch “Crazy Rich Asians” and note how one of the main antagonists, Eleanor Young (mother of Nick Young) interacts with her potential future daughter-in-law.

Evaluating – Direct Negative Feedback vs Indirect Negative Feedback

Different cultures have different expectations when handling feedback, with some offering (and expecting) more direct negative feedback, while others are more indirect. Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

A good example of this is America. While Americans are known as very explicit (low context) communicators, they are more indirect in giving negative feedback. In my own experiences, this resonates with many other Anglo-Saxon cultures, where giving negative feedback about a situation is often associated with judging or labelling someone.

As any British person living in Germany (as I do!) might tell you, the Germans are much more direct at providing negative feedback. In Germany, you can receive very direct negative feedback in any context (in a supermarket, bar, or on public transport), regardless of your relationship with other people. I’ve learned it’s often less about you and more about what you do or the situation, so don’t take it too personally.

Persuading – Concept-first vs Application-first

In this dimension, different cultures approach discussion and arguments differently, with some first looking for or starting with theories (concept-first) and others looking for or starting with examples (application-first). Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

Countries with a concept-first focus, such as the French and Italians, tend towards deductive arguments, focusing on theories and complex concepts before presenting a fact, statement, or opinion. Others, notably Anglosaxon cultures, tend toward inductive arguments, first focusing on the practical application before moving to theory.

Living in Europe, this has been particularly interesting when I’ve read reports or emails. I’ve recognised that when I’m receiving communication from those coming from a concept-first background, I’m less likely to have specific facts/situations presented first. The facts and data are used to back up theories or principles, which is in contrast to my upbringing, which always first favoured giving examples and concluding with an overall theme.

Leading – Egalitarian vs Hierarchical

If you’re in a formal leadership role, this dimension will help you understand why some cultures have no issues challenging you directly, while others are silent unless directly invited for their input. These differences are norms and expectations around egalitarian vs hierarchical leadership roles. Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

For me, this dimension is similar to Hofstede’s Power Distance Index. In cultures with a more egalitarian leadership style, people in their teams are often to challenge or even skip leaders if they disagree or have different opinions. In more hierarchical cultures, team members challenge leaders less because they place more emphasis on hierarchy. An excellent example for me is when an American or British company (more egalitarian) outsources work to countries like India or Vietnam (more hierarchical). Their managers find that development teams follow instructions with little to no feedback, even if they disagree or the request/task may be wrong.

Deciding – Consensual vs Top-Down

I find this dimension interesting because there are extreme differences across decision-making expectations across countries and around different company cultures. For example, I would describe Google’s decision-making processes as more consensus-based compared to Amazon’s (e.g. disagree and commit) or Apple’s (e.g. DRI or Direct Responsible Individual). Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

Although leadership expectations might be more egalitarian or top-down, decision-making is a separate element and is best highlighted by the stark contrast in Japan. While Japan is typically more hierarchical compared to other countries, culturally, it also has a very consensual decision-making system. This is called the ringi-system, which involves building consensus at a lower level before bringing proposals to a higher level. Nemawashi is a similar concept, which is the process of quietly laying the foundation of some change by talking to the people concerned and gathering support before a formal announcement.

In top-down decision-making cultures, leaders announce a decision and the decision is expected to be followed.

Trusting – Task-Based vs Relationship-based

Some cultures base trust on someone’s ability to do quality work (task-based) while others build trust through the interactions and relationships people have (relationship-based). Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

In task-based cultures, trust develops as long as you do good work. This is very situation-dependent, and trust can be quickly built and lost. In relationship-based cultures, work relationships are not quickly built. In relationship-based cultures, people might be paired to a particular task solely on their relationship and not necessarily their aptitude to do the work.

I haven’t experienced this aspect so much in my career, but I have heard many British business people/salespeople complaining about how difficult it is to do business in places like Italy, France or Spain which is more relationship-based.

Disagreeing – Confrontational vs Avoids Confrontation

For me, this aspect feels similar to the Evaluating aspect previously covered. Still, it is broader about how different cultures approach conflicting opinions, with some countries more confrontational and others tending to avoid confrontation. Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

As a British/Australian person, I’ve experienced this, having worked and lived in countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands (which are notoriously direct) relative to the British/Australian. I’ve also experienced the other side, having visited countries like Japan and India. For those who have lived or worked in India, you might be familiar with the head wobble in response to a confrontational question and being unsure if it’s a yes or no.

Scheduling – Linear Time vs Flexible Time

The last cultural difference highlighted in the book is how countries approach time and schedule, with some being more sequential or linear and others being more flexible. Below is a figure from the book showing countries across this spectrum.

Cultures with a linear time approach to scheduling often frown at changes to the plan and hold to deadlines. Those who are more flexible think about time more fluidly.

I am reminded of this cultural difference when I think of courses I held in Germany compared to courses in Brazil. With courses in Germany, participants typically arrive well before the workshop or very much on time. In Brazil, I remember several people turning up to 30 minutes after the start and one person casually walking in one hour after the start!

Objections to This Model

It’s worth highlighting that some individuals strongly dislike models like this, as they don’t believe individuals can be “boxed in” to a particular category. I agree with them completely. Individuals are much more complex than these models imply. I think it’s dangerous to follow up with them by automatically assuming individuals will act according to the model and where they come from.

Unlike the Meyer-Briggs test, which is proven to be little more than a horoscope, I still believe these research-based models offer some value. I have personally found these models helpful for building empathy, tailoring communication and adjusting situations to be more inclusive.

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