The Culture Map - Read this before working on a distributed, multi-cultural team.

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I finished reading The Culture Map and wanted to write a few words about the book. The author Erin Meyer has done a wonderful job of explaining how different people around the world think, lead, act and get things done in a business setting through extremely relatable real-world examples of everyday situations. You should definitely read the book.

The author breaks down the work culture into eight scales. And you have to consider each of them as a SCALE and not a binary. You would look at where your culture is placed on the scale and where the culture you are trying to understand is placed and then make adjustments accordingly. There are no absolutes. Everything is relative.

To understand why I appreciate the book so much, why it was such an amazing read and highly relevant to me, let me tell you something about me. I work on a distributed team of about 15 people comprising of people from Germany, Netherlands, Finland, colleagues from China, two from the USA and me from India.

Different people, different styles of communication, different ways of working and a truly international, distributed, multi-cultural team and I have to say the Culture Map nails it. I read the book AFTER working with the team for about a year and I could relate so well with the examples from the book. I wish I had read this in advance. It would have certainly explained a lot the “interesting” interactions. At least, now I know. Better late than never, I guess.

Let us look at the different scales

1. Communicating: “Low-Context vs. High Context”

Low-Context: Precise, simple, clear. Messages are explicit and understood at face value.

High-Context: Sophisticated, Nuanced, layered. You may have to read between the lines (or read the air).

What does the author mean by this?

When you offer a drink to a guest, and they say “no, thank you”, would they be expecting you to ask them again or did they really meant what they said? The answer depends on if they are from a “high-context” Asian culture or a “low-context” American culture.

Now, after reading this and numerous other examples, I am beginning to re-think all my conversations with someone from a different culture - emails, conference calls and the #WaterCoolerChat. Is what I said actually what I meant? Were there some implied messages? Is someone looking for implied messages when there was none implied?

2. Evaluating: “Direct Negative Feedback vs. Indirect Negative Feedback”

Direct Negative Feedback: Honest, Direct, Blunt negative feedback provided in person or in front of a group and usually with superlatives.

Indirect Negative Feedback: Soft, Subtle, Diplomatic negative feedback is wrapped with positive messages provided in person and usually with downgraders to soften the blow.

The Chinese manager learns to never criticize in public, while the Dutch manager learns to be always honest. Americans are trained to wrap positive statements around negative messages, the French are trained to criticize passionately and the British are notorious for not saying what they mean and are the masters of downgrade.

Take a look at the Anglo-Dutch translation guide to understand how easy it is for negative feedback to get lost in translation.

Anglo Dutch Translation Guide

I am not going to go into detail with the rest of the factors. You’ll have to read the book to get the details. I’ll just list them for the sake of completeness.

  • 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”
  • Scheduling: “Linear-time vs. Flexible-time”

While the author tries to make sense of the differences in cultures, she is very quick to make the point that people are different and unique in their own way and you should never generalize.

The biggest take-away from the Culture Map is the understanding that in a different part of the world, things are done differently. An awareness of the differences between others’ culture is definitely a step in the right direction.