One of the best books I've read recently is Erin Meyer's "The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business," a thoughtful and detailed exploration of the ways in which differences in national culture affect our efforts to communicate across borders.
Meyer, an American who teaches at INSEAD, draws on the work of previous researchers in the field, most notably Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars and she shares credit generously, but her own significant contribution is the Culture Map itself, a framework that looks at communication on multiple dimensions and locates various national cultures on each one.
I've distilled her findings for the seven largest economies in the world at the moment--the United States, China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil--and mapped them on each spectrum. The indented passages below are excerpted from The Culture Map and correspond to the slides above, interspersed with my comments on the implications of this data for working in the US.
1. Communication Style
Low-Context: Good communication is precise, simple, and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition is appreciated if it helps clarify the communication.
High-Context: Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines. Messages are often implied but not plainly expressed. (page 39)
It's noteworthy to me--albeit unsurprising--that the US is the most extreme low-context culture in Meyer's study, and I find this one of the most striking data points from her findings. It seems to explain much of the communication difficulties I've seen and experienced across cultural boundaries.
2. Evaluation Style (Negative Feedback)
Direct: Negative feedback is provided frankly, bluntly, honestly. Negative messages stand alone, not softened by positive ones. Absolute descriptors are often used ("totally inappropriate," "completely unprofessional") when criticizing. Criticism may be given to an individual in front of a group.
Indirect: Negative feedback to a colleague is provided softly, subtly, diplomatically. Positive messages are used to wrap negative ones. Qualifying descriptors are often used ("sort of inappropriate," "slightly unprofessional") when criticizing. Criticism is only given in private. (page 69)
My own experience in the US corresponds with our position in the middle of the spectrum, and I've found that a soft start helps a great deal when providing negative feedback in this culture.
3. Disagreement Style
Confrontational: Disagreement and debate are positive for the team or organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.
Conflict-Averse: Disagreement and debate are negative for the team or organization. Open confrontation is inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship. (page 201)
I suspect that the US position in the middle of this spectrum reflects a national tendency to seek a balance between confrontation and harmony, and at the same time my experience as a professional and a coach makes clear that this varies widely across organizations and industries. I'm aware of professional settings in the US that are extremely confrontational and others that are just as conflict-averse.
4. Persuasive Style
Practical Applications: Individuals are trained to begin with a fact, statement, or opinion and later add concepts to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary. The preference is to begin a message or report with an executive summary or bullet points. Discussions are approached in a practical concrete manner. Theoretical or philosophical discussions are avoided in a business environment.
Conceptual Principles: Individuals have been trained to first develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement, or opinion. The preference is to begin a message or report by building up a theoretical argument before moving on to a conclusion. The conceptual principles underlying each situation are valued. (page 96)
The emphasis on practical applications is consistent throughout much of US business culture, although in certain settings you can strengthen your point by noting the conceptual basis later (but rarely--if ever--up front.)
5. Source of Trust
Task-Accomplishment: Trust is based through business-related activities. Work relationships are built and dropped easily, based on the practicality of the situation. You do good work consistently, you are reliable, I enjoy working with you: I trust you.
Personal Relationships: Trust is built through sharing meals, evening drinks, and visits at the coffee machine. Work relationships build up slowly over the long term. I've seen who you are at a deep level, I've shared personal time with you, I know others well who trust you: I trust you. (page 171)
This finding of Meyer's was one of the most enlightening for me, perhaps because it used plain language to explain subtle social dynamics I've sensed but haven't fully understood. It was no surprise to learn that the US is the culture most focused on task accomplishment as a source of trust, and I see this as an all-too-common source of cross-cultural misunderstandings.
Many thanks to Erin Meyer for developing a tremendously useful resource for anyone working across cultural boundaries. I look forward to putting these principles to into practice immediately in my work at Stanford and my coaching practice.
- In this post I've re-ordered the sequence of the concepts from Meyer's book, changed some of the headings, and flipped a few of the endpoints to make a more consistent slide deck. The page numbers are from Public Affairs' 2014 hardback edition.
- I've cut out two concepts Meyer discusses, power distance and decision-making, because they were less relevant to my topic here, but I wrote about Hofstede's research on the former in 2008.
- If you'd like to learn more about Meyer's work before reading her entire book, I highly recommend two of her HBR articles from 2014, Navigating the Cultural Minefield and One Reason Cross-Cultural Small Talk Is So Tricky. The latter makes the vivid distinction between "peach cultures" (like the U.S. and Brazil) and "coconut cultures" (like Germany and Russia), which Meyer credits to Trompenaars.