Doing business with people from different cultural backgrounds can be tricky. Understanding them is the first step to making it work

There is an old adage that the British and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language: When the British “table a discussion,” they bring it up for consideration. When the Americans “table” one, they put it aside for later, if ever. When a Brit uses a rubber, it is to erase a mistake; an American to prevent pregnancy…

Books
The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done across Cultures
by Erin Meyer, New York: Public Affairs (2014), 277 pp.
$10.99 / €15,99


Photo: Erin Meyer

All of which comes to mind in Erin Meyer’s excellent new guide to intercultural differences, The Culture Map, taking on the assumptions behind language, behavior and social rituals that can make or break a business relationship. An “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide” circulating anonymously on the internet is a good place to start, she writes. For instance, when an Englishman says, “With all due respect,” what he really means is “I think you are wrong,” but what a Dutchman understands is, “He is listening to me.” Thus, communication quickly degrades into confusion.

Scaling Culture

In this remarkably clear-eyed guide to cultural assumptions, Meyer presents a systematic, step-by-step approach to making sense out of the most common misunderstandings that arise in business-communication, and the all-important tools for addressing them. With refreshing clarity, she pinpoints the cultural factors that shape human behavior.” For instance, in South America, 45 minutes late is punctual, in Northern Europe, offensive. In hierarchical countries like France or Russia, the boss is god-like, in an egalitarian culture like Holland, not at all.

An American professor at INSEAD, the French top business school, Meyer has spent two decades analyzing the difficulties that can arise when sending employees abroad, well-observed and synthesized here into 277 compelling pages.   

The core of Meyer’s model is a chart of “Eight Scales that Map the World’s Cultures.” These scales (Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing, and Scheduling) cover the extremes of cultural behavior from egalitarian to hierarchical in the case of leadership, or linear to flexible regarding scheduling.

The issue of trust is key, Meyer writes, although less so in a culture that values written contracts, like say, in Denmark. There, a signature assures you that you will eventually get your money, product or service. In Nigeria, however, business is an act of faith. If trust is weak, the deal will fall through.

Uncharted territories

Whether one can truly “map” qualities of culture remains debatable. There are so many variables involved. But Meyer does an excellent job of categorizing the various regional trends and types, and The Culture Map offers a starting point for frazzled expatriates trying to come to terms with living abroad and managing a foreign culture.

It is also funny. Take the Nigerian HR executive who complains that “Germans plan everything not just weeks but months in advance.” How can he fill out a form in January to order lunch in April? Then there is the German manager who claims it is Americans, not Germans, who are the hierarchical ones: “When the U.S. boss says ‘March left’ the Americans all click their heels and turn left – no question, no challenge. I’ve never seen anything like it. And if you are German, and you dare to challenge your American boss, as is so common in Germany, don’t be surprised if you find yourself one step closer to unemployment.”

Meyer’s anecdotes are well chosen and illustrate the cultural misunderstandings that can lead not only to awkward social situations but also to poor management decisions, employee dysfunctionality, and lost business – a field guide to surviving the pitfalls of living and working internationally.