The Culture Map

Holidaying in Malta some twenty five years ago, I had fallen in with a group of fifteen or so other solitary travellers from various parts of the world. We all did our own thing by day, but usually spent evenings sprawled around a number of poolside tables filled with more bottles than plates, discussing and sometimes arguing about a range of topics from the mundane to the arcane. Unsurprisingly tempers were sometimes piqued, and one of the two vivid memories I have from that trip was sharing a point of view that a swarthy chap from Lincolnshire clearly took exception to. “Wait, are you foreign?”, he asked me ominously. I couldn’t help but reply with a grin “yes, but from where we are sitting, I’m about a thousand miles less foreign than you.” Given the lateness of the hour and the fact that I then had to explain my answer before he understood my point, nothing was established other than the fact that discretion is the better part of valour. The second memory I have from that trip is from a week later on New Year’s Eve, when I arrived back at my hotel after a long day spent walking along the coast. As I crossed the lobby, I heard my name being called from the bar, urging me to join the rest of the group already in place at our usual spot. The voice belonged to a tall affable chap and as I approached, he opened his arms wide in welcome. I responded by giving him a big hug, planting a kiss on his cheek and shouting “Happy New Year’s Eve!” He recoiled as though stung by a wasp, the smile evaporating from his face as his right fist connected with my jaw. These events didn’t surprise me then and wouldn’t do so now, but they are among the oh-so-many moments in my life that have fuelled my fascination with cultural differences in general, nationality in particular and how luck is so often presented as personal achievement.

About five months ago, I received an invitation from a client to create an interactive session for a large and diverse group of researchers designed to help them better connect and communicate amongst themselves. “Have a look at this book”, she suggested, “it’s something I recommend to everyone in our department, and I think you might find it interesting. If you can incorporate any ideas from it in your workshop, that would be brilliant.” With these words, I was introduced to what I now refer to as the book I have been waiting my whole life to read: The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, who is an American professor who teaches in Paris at INSEAD, a global graduate business school. She has travelled extensively, lived in various countries and through her work helps people navigate the complexities of cultural differences. In order to be effective, she suggests that it is not enough to simply be aware of and accept that cultural barriers exist in the world; we have to do something to mitigate the impact they can have, and this starts with accepting that our own cultures have just as clear a character as all the others that we marvel at and sometimes find difficult to navigate.

The Culture Map is the tool that she has created to help us understand our place in the multicultural world better, and the framework for it is as a set of eight scales, with each one being a continuum along which a country can be positioned according to how people who live there seem to do things. As you might imagine, all countries contain huge variations of behaviour between their individuals, subcultures and regions, and over many years she has gathered an enormous amount of data from her students, experiences and experiments. Creating clarity by sacrificing accuracy, she has used the median point from each dataset to create a representation for a country on each of the eight scales, which are designed to reflect the way we communicate, evaluate critically, lead others, make decisions, build trust, disagree, regard schedules and build arguments for the purpose of persuading. The clearest understanding of these will come from reading her book, as it is filled with countless stories, strategies and insights, but below I have briefly outlined them so as to give you an idea.


  1. The terms low context and high context communication refer to the responsibility for making sure a piece of communication is understood. In a low context culture, such as America, the speaker is mostly responsible and communication tends to be really clear, direct and unambiguous. By contrast, in a high context culture such as Japan, the listener is responsible for determining the meaning of what has been said by reading between the lines, detecting subtleties and extracting the message. It might be possible to get a sense of the two ends of this scale by thinking about how communication changes as personal relationships develop. When couples first meet they may need to overcome differences in their communication styles by engaging in lower-context communication so as to minimise misunderstandings. Perhaps statements are clear and intentions are explained in more detail in the hope that potential misunderstandings are minimised. As time passes and they become aware of each other’s idiosyncrasies, their communication becomes more and more high-context as they learn to create meaning from silences and interpret looks and expressions.

  2. The evaluating scale is about a preference for frank or diplomatic criticism, which can be easy to imagine has a correlation with the preceding continuum, but many countries have different positions on the two. For example, the French are higher-context communicators, yet quite direct when it comes to negative feedback, whilst the British are lower-context communicators who tend to give criticism quite indirectly. A good way to gauge a culture is by listening to the words that are used when giving feedback. “This is totally unprofessional and absolutely unacceptable” is direct and uses what linguists call upgraders, which are words that maximise what is being described. Contrast that with “We’re having a little difficulty here”, and “we’ve had a bit of a disaster” which is more indirect and uses downgraders that soften how the feedback might land. This meme about the differences between the British and Dutch illustrates, with tongue in cheek, how misunderstandings in this area can arise.

  3. What does a good boss look like? In egalitarian cultures leaders are facilitators who have open doors, and they trust that those they work with will use initiative and take ownership. In hierarchical ones, the boss is expected to be remote, revered and unchallenged. This continuum owes much to the work of Geert Hofstede, a cross-cultural researcher who developed the term “Power Distance” which he defined as “the extent to which those with less power accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” This continuum reflects how much respect or deference is shown to an authority figure and whether or not it is acceptable to skip layers – by which I mean – if you want to communicate a message to your manager’s boss, can you just do it – or should you go through your manager? Problems can arise when a leader from an egalitarian culture is brought in to manage a team more used to a hierarchical culture, as power distance can also create a sense of importance for a team and removing it can cause a sense of humiliation.

  4. It’s easy to assume that the most egalitarian cultures in the world are the most consensual, and that the most hierarchical ones are those where the boss at the top makes all the decisions. This is not always so, as shown by the Japanese culture which is strongly hierarchical but also one of the most consensual ones. This scale is about whether decisions are made through consensus on one hand, or a leader making executive decisions on the other. In top-down cultures, decisions start to be made quite quickly by the boss after an idea is first floated, and then revisions can come thick and fast as new information and differing opinions present themselves. In consensual cultures, ideas are followed by a great deal of consultation and discussion involving all the stakeholders before any decisions are made, but once it has been taken, further discussions are rare. What is dynamic to some can look impulsive to others, and what is deeply considered to some can seem long-winded to others.

  5. “Never mix business with pleasure” and “It’s a pleasure doing business with you” are two commonly used expressions, and suggest different perspectives. Obviously trust is essential to all good relationships and this continuum explores the kind of trust we build with our professional colleagues – and how it grows. Some cultures base their working relationships on cognitive trust (head) like the US, Britain, and Germany, where it is built through an appreciation of the quality of your work. In places like Brazil, Japan, or India people are more accustomed to developing affective trust (heart) and as a result of creating a more personal connection. Clearly both kinds of trust are important, but the different starting points can be surprising, as I once discovered. Having been invited to collaborate on a series of workshops in Brazil several years ago, I spent fourteen hours on a flight to São Paulo before checking in to my hotel in the evening. In my room I found the most enormous bouquet of flowers, various gifts, a box of chocolates and a hand-written note, all of which gave me a warm and welcome feeling as I got ready for bed. The phone interrupted my thoughts, and it was my client checking to see that I had arrived safely and all was well. I thanked them and said I was looking forward to meeting them the next morning, whereupon they told me that they were down in reception with a taxi waiting to take me out to dinner. I returned to my room three hours and four Caipirinhas later, and the next day at work the trust we had built served us well, even if my head felt slightly fuzzy. It’s telling and perhaps surprising that not all working cultures use ice-breaker exercises to build trust at the start of a workplace event, because in some the trust is already there.

  6. Different cultures have very different ideas about how productive confrontation is for a team. Countries like China, Japan, and India view the public airing of disagreement very dimly, while the US, France, and the Netherlands are quite comfortable having lively and confrontational meetings. This scale looks at whether you feel such confrontation is likely to improve the dynamics or undermine the relationships within a team. In the book Erin Meyer cites numerous examples where spirited debate and emotional expressiveness for some was interpreted as confrontation and aggression. Mark Twain is reported to have said “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” and so it is that the concept of face is present in all societies, but it can be saved and undermined in quite different ways. In seeking to reconcile these two approaches to public disagreement, it can be useful to bear in mind the words of Anne Lamott, who in her book Bird by Bird says “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.”

  7. I’ve always thought that Time Management is a really strange concept because you can only manage yourself, but this continuum is easy to grasp and one of the obvious causes of tension in relationships. All businesses follow timetables, but in some cultures such as India, Brazil, and Italy, people treat the schedule as a suggestion, while others stick to the agenda (such as Switzerland, Germany, and the USA). This scale looks at how much value is placed on being structured or reactive in relation to a schedule, and is based on the distinctions of “monochronic” and “polychronic” as formalised by Edward Hall. Do deadlines really matter, or is adaptability more important? For fifteen years I worked closely with a colleague in whom I have the utmost respect, and I lost count of the number of times he would brief a short exercise with the words “take five or ten minutes in pairs to have a chat about this.” Noting our different time cultures, I would often catch his eye immediately afterwards and mouth the word “which?” to him with raised eyebrows. His response was always the same; he would smile and shrug.

  8. If we are going to turn our ideas into reality, we need to be able to persuade – and this is directly connected to how we think and reason, which in turn is influenced by how we are taught at school. This last continuum is quite different from the first seven in that Erin Meyer has separated Western from Eastern cultures, because she characterises thought processes from that part of the world as more holistic and Western ones more specific. As a result, this scale presently focuses only on Western thinking, and countries like the US, Canada, and Australia are Applications-First. In these cultures what seems to matter most is getting to the point quickly, and then backing it up with specific and relevant data to show why the point is valid. In countries like Italy, France, Russia and Spain, it seems much more important to first set out and understand the established principles that are relevant, and then show how these support the best course of action. People with a principles-first culture generally want to know why they are being asked to do something, while application-first learners tend to focus more on the how. In the book, Erin Meyer describes how one of the common frustrations among French employees with American managers is that they are told what to do without explanation, which can feel demotivating and possibly disrespectful. American bosses, by contrast, may feel that French workers are uncooperative because instead of acting quickly, they first ask want to understand why before they are ready to follow instructions.

    Rather than being at either end of this particular continuum, Erin Meyer suggests that Eastern cultures typically look to persuade by first gathering relevant data at a holistic level and letting any relevant factors then inform and shape how they consider the specifics of the task at hand. During an exercise where the instruction was to “take a photo of a person”, an American student took a close-up of the subject showing features of the face, while a Japanese student framed the subject in relationship with the room they were in. There followed a conversation which revealed that the American wanted to consider the subject in isolation from their environment, while the Japanese student felt that it was the environment that gave the context to understand the subject better. Persuasion exists in all cultures, but the starting point varies and it’s interesting to note that when writing an address, the Chinese write in sequence of  province, city, district, block, gate number – from macro to micro – and here in the West we do the opposite by starting with the number of a flat or house and working our way up to the city, state or country.

Spread across these scales, Erin Meyer uses all the data she has gathered over the years to produce a Culture Map – a visual representation of how these eight things are typically done – for approximately fifty countries around the world. Through these lenses we can explore and compare cultural differences, and if we add to it an increased awareness of the character of our own culture, her work then becomes a tool which can offer ideas about how we might flex our behaviours so as to navigate the particular landscape in which we find ourselves most effectively.

Critical to interpreting these maps is the concept of Cultural Relativity; the idea that a country’s actual position on a particular scale matters far less than its relative position to others. If we consider just one of the scales as an example: the United Kingdom has a culture of communicating that is higher-context when compared to America, but someone from Japan, placed at the far right of this scale, would likely perceive both cultures as lower-context relative to themselves, and therefore might be less able to distinguish the differences between them than someone from a country like Germany, which is located higher than America but lower than the UK. After all, we only recognise water as cold when we have experienced what comes out of the hot tap.

As I mentioned earlier, all countries have large variations in all eight scales, and so we as individuals would rightly assert that no median point could ever represent us. Available through her website, Erin Meyer allows us to create an account  and then take a questionnaire for a nominal fee which reflects the personal culture we think best represents us arranged on the same scales. We might then use it to explore how well we “fit in” with the country in which we live. Or perhaps we might use it when considering the culture of a country which we want to visit, work in or even live in. I have found it incredibly useful and insightful when thinking about the times I have worked in places like Egypt, Canada and Brazil and from now on I will certainly refer to it when making any travel plans.

The reason that I describe this as the book I have been waiting my whole life to read is that among the principles that underpin her work, Erin Meyer states that cultural differences can exist within us. As someone who was born in the US and raised mostly in the UK with a German mother and an Italian father, I have always felt a bit “neither here nor there” and this idea caught my attention straight away. The image below represents the relative positions (slightly adjusted for clarity) of these cultural influences in my life, with my personal map superimposed on top. Make of it what you will; my wife, who is Swedish, certainly has.

Of course, this map doesn’t prove anything and I’m not sure how it fits with the nature/nurture debate, but it does resonate, shed light on and provoke useful conversations in my head. It helps me explore the similarities I have with the cultures of where I live and where my work takes me, it suggests how the cultural differences within me can conspire to cause certain issues, and it might explain why I sometimes feel as though I don’t fit in anywhere. It  also provides a thoughtful tapestry against which the beautiful words of Ijeoma Umebinyuo in her poem “Diaspora Blues” can be viewed.

“So here you are

too foreign for here

too foreign for home

never enough for both.”

Cultural differences will always be barriers that need to be recognised, addressed and overcome if we are to integrate beyond our immediate borders, and not just tolerate but openly accommodate, welcome and celebrate others. If nothing else Erin Meyer’s book gently warns against exceptionalism by showing all cultures to be equally distinct and sometimes difficult for others to deal with. Isolationism of one form or another has been tried by various countries through the ages, but it’s never stood the test of time.  Sir Peter Ustinov once wrote that beliefs are what divide people while doubt unites them, and so it is that curiosity always wins in the end.

I’ve started to develop a new course based on this work to add to my existing portfolio, but if there ever was a book designed to be taken on holiday and read from the depths of a sun lounger while other languages, different customs and all manner of the unfamiliar swirl around you, this surely is it.