Written By Kathryn Hemming

“It is only when you start to identify what makes your culture different from others that you can begin to open a dialogue of sharing, learning, and ultimately understanding. ”

3 Main Messages:

  1. We are often blind to our own cultural norms
  2. Understanding each other is the key to narrowing cultural differences
  3. Naming differences and developing core cultural agreements is crucial

Most schools celebrate World Culture Week, with staff spending hours considering music, food, clothing, traditions and literature from countries around the world to explore and celebrate with their students. In international schools, students and staff are often invited to dress in their national costume – which I always found tricky. As a child of the British 80s, I wasn’t sure that my ‘national costume’ of Ra-Ra skirts, tucker boots and back-combed hair was entirely in keeping with the theme. 

Certainly in the ‘culture’ sections of newspapers, theatre, entertainment, sport, music, literature and the arts are all covered, but real culture is in attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. The Culture Map explores how these vary between different countries and the impact this can have on international working relationships. When understood they provide context, when misinterpreted they can create disaster. This book highlights differences between cultures, the issues and misunderstandings they can create in daily life, and how these gulfs can be overcome. 

While acknowledging that we are all individuals and that there are differences within cultures and countries, Erin Meyer has identified trends across cultures in these eight main areas which impact international businesses. They are:

  1. Communicating
  2. Evaluating
  3. Persuading
  4. Leading
  5. Deciding
  6. Trusting
  7. Disagreeing
  8. Scheduling

She explores each of these areas in detail, providing multiple anecdotes and stories which help to demonstrate how these differences play out in real life. All are recognisable and explain the many misunderstandings that can cause conflict when working in multicultural environments. 

By plotting countries against one another on an 8 scale model, Meyer starts to draw out the reasons behind behaviours and explain how these can be acknowledged, celebrated and understood in order to help teams to work together better.

She compares high context communicators (China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea) with low context communicators (USA, Australia, Netherlands, UK), those who operate with linear time (Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Scandinavia) to those with flexible approaches to time (India, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kenya), and those with an egalitarian approach to leadership (Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, Australia) to those with a strict hierarchy (Nigeria, Korea, Japan, China). It is clear to see where a lack of understanding could lead to unintended offence and the breakdown of communication. By understanding differences, multinational companies and communities are actually able to not only bridge these gaps, but play to each others’ strengths. 

Certainly for a traditionally low-context communicator like myself (coming from the North of England), it has been fascinating to learn from the high context cultures of Asia, where people seem to communicate almost telepathically. I have learned to listen to what is not being said and appreciate how to gain respect, and equally understand how easy it is to lose it!

Meyer explains how we move through three levels of awareness: from being blind to our own cultural norms, to realising that there are differences but assuming that other ways of behaving are inferior to our own, to a place where cultural differences are respected, understood and used to great benefit for all.

For any Brit who has been baffled by timekeeping in Thailand, shocked by the frankness of Germans friends or confused by a surface-level lack of communication from colleagues in China, this book not only explains how these behaviours originated but also teaches us how to avoid causing and taking offence. It is a must-read for anyone working in a multicultural setting and a fascinating book for those who love to travel and see life through a whole different lens. 

Thinking back to my own musical ‘cultural’ youth, as Bananarama and Fun Boy Three sang: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. It ain’t what you do, it’s the time that you do it. It ain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it. And that’s what gets results”