The Culture Map: Breaking Through The Invisible Boundaries of Global Business
by Erin Meyer (Botswana 1993-95)
Public Affairs Books
$26.99 (hardcover), $10.98 (paperback), $9.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Laurette Bennhold-Samaan (PC/HQ 1994-01)
The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Globe Business, is beneficial even for a 30+ year seasoned interculturalist as myself having lived and worked globally with multiple nationalities. I was born in Egypt to an Egyptian father and an American mother of Armenian origin.While Erin Meyer, the author, “was not born into a multicultural family to parents who took her around the world,” she and I share much in common—a former professor, interculturalist, Peace Corps experience and most importantly the love and understanding of the impact culture has on shaping us as individuals and our personalities. I can personally relate to almost every one of Erin’s illustrative examples.
The Culture Map provides us with a smart, practical model for breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business, as the book’s subtitle promises. The book is applicable for anyone doing business with people from another culture as well working (or living) with anyone who has a different communication or work-style. Culture Map enlightens, broadens your horizons, reduces the likelihood of miscommunication and – what’s the most important – helps the reader understand and reconcile the differences of behavior and the interpretation.
There is a right mix between the framework, practical examples and graphics that help provide a detailed map to follow. Erin astutely builds upon decades of works by other interculturalists such as Edward Hall, Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Stella Ting-Toomey plus many more and offers a practical and immediately applicable set of strategies for success in a global business environment, which earns her book my recommendation.
Erin presents a set of eight dimensions structured along the lines of how people interact:
- How to communicate effectively across cultures
- How to evaluate individual performance
- How to assess organizational performance (i.e., team, department, company)
- How to provide negative feedback
- How to be persuasive in a multicultural world
- Criteria for identifying good bosses and bad bosses: leadership, hierarchy, and uses/abuses of power
- Decision-making process: do’s and don’ts
- How to develop (nourish and strengthen) two types of trust
- How to disagree productively
- How to manage scheduling and cross-cultural perceptions of time
She highlights not only multiple examples, resulting behaviors and strategies for crossing cultural gaps and reconciling diverse ways of getting things done. She gives very practical advice to not only understand the differences but how to break down the barriers between different cultures when working together. She is well aware that “cultural and individual differences are often wrapped up with differences among organizations, industries, professions, and other groups. But even in the most complex situations, understanding how cultural differences affect the mix may help you discover new communication approaches.” Cultural patterns of behavior and beliefs impact our perceptions (what we see), cognition’s (what we think), and actions (what we do).
The way we see the world in our own culture seems so completely obvious and “normal” that it is difficult to imagine that another culture might do things differently. It is only when you start to identify what is typical in your own culture, but different from others, that you can begin to open a dialogue of sharing, learning and ultimately understanding. Many well-intentioned people don’t educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that a focus on individual differences will be enough.
The Culture Map provides a framework for interpreting these cultural differences which are not only extremely useful but also compelling. The abundant examples given and practical tips on how to work effectively with others from different cultures are invaluable. Erin uses a wide range of stories, her own and others’, to illustrate essential concepts and highlight critical caveats. As I read through her stories countless stories of my own and my parents came forth in my mind and led me down memory lane. I paused multiple times within each chapter to reflect on how the topics applied directly to my own experiences navigating the world, my job, my relationships and helped me to consciously ponder how I would handle situations differently in the future.
Erin highlights high context cultures (where the message is in the context and not in the words) when Ron must be offered food multiple times before accepting, I had to laugh thinking of the story that my American mom told me of how my Egyptian father came for Thanksgiving dinner to my mom’s home and left their home hours later still hungry. He was offered food only one time and to help himself! Apparently, my mom and her family missing the cultural subtlety of this interaction allowed my poor father to leave the Thanksgiving meal hungry.
Culture shapes us elusively and profoundly. It can be subtle in seeing how people interact yet can and will have powerful implications. Erin raises the topic of being friendly and the variation of acceptable conversation topics. I immediately remembered when I lived in Germany that one does not greet strangers on the street. In contrast, being friendly in the US does not equate to having a relationship. I still wonder what so many people must have thought as I smiled and said hello to most on the street for the first few months!
We are all conditioned to see and understand the world in a particular way based on our cultural upbringing and lens in which we view the world. Erin speaks about German “Sachlichkeit” which translated into English means “objectivity” that you can separate the person’s opinions or ideas from the person expressing that view made me smile as I vividly remember sitting around our dinner table in Germany passionately arguing about politics, immigration, and topics with raised voices. Her depiction of different cultures and different layers of information that are divulged publicly or reserved for private relationships conjured up many personal examples as well –in Germany we would spend hours with friends talking about politics and yet they didn’t even know for over 2 years that I had a sibling or an ailing father back home. Or the time a stranger, on a train, asked me how much my daughter’s adoption had cost with her sitting right next to me.
Erin speaks about connections and refers to the Arabic term called “Wasta” which means “connections that create preferences.” My Egyptian cousins generally get a job introduction from someone who has a relationship with a person in the organization they would like to contact. Having that contact is not only an asset (as viewed in the US) but that person/relative makes an expected quick call introducing you personally as a friend/relative which works wonders in establishing a personal connection as a first step.
One of the potentially most significant challenges for those working in a truly global context are strategies for navigating many cultures all on one team. Having worked virtually for the past 11 years with two employers (Accenture and Aperian Global – the largest privately held intercultural consulting firm), making sense of cultural differences on a face to face team is hard and a virtual team even more challenging. Interpreting the silence which has varying interpretations on a virtual conference call with multiple cultures is complex.
Communication is essential and getting to agreement on global teams can be downright challenging. How do they agree? How do they disagree agreeably? How do they disagree face to face versus on the phone? Personally, I learned this the hard way. In Japan when I worked at Honda, decades ago, before almost every meeting there was another meeting in which the actual decisions were made. I also learned that the response“yes” meant understanding and not task accomplishment. Knowing these two cultural communication differences prior would have been vital. Her advice when you work with higher context colleagues it to learn to listen for meaning instead of what is said, reflect more, ask more clarifying questions and be receptive to body language.
Her real-life examples on giving feedback resonated with me as well. How many times have I given feedback in the typical US American “sandwich approach” using positive language first, followed by couching the negative in a positive and ending on a positive. My French colleagues at Aperian Global or my French West African colleagues at the World Bank, would have most likely preferred the positive feedback given implicitly and the negative feedback given more directly.
Erin provides an abundance of information, insights, and guidance that can help to break through the invisible boundaries of global business. Although the book focuses on the needs of the business world, whether you are in business, education or non-profit, have friends, neighbors or spouses from other cultures, pick up this book. It is insightful and rich with advice for everyone who deals with people of other cultures regardless of the nature of the interaction. As the world is becoming smaller, this book is a great foundation to be able to see from someone else’s lens and perspective.
If you are interested in reading more about global leadership, I recommend two additional books. Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts by Christie Caldwell, Ernest Gundling, and Karen Cvitkovich and What Is Global Leadership? 10 Key Behaviors That Define Great Global Leaders by Ernest Gundling, Karen Cvitkovich, and Terry Hogan.
I agree with Erin Meyer: “What’s new is the requirement for twenty-first century leaders to be prepared to understand a wider, richer array of work styles than ever before and to be able to determine what aspects of an interaction are simply a result of personality and which are a result of differences in cultural perspective.” As a fellow interculturalist and life-long learner, I believe that cultural interactions can be a source of endless insight and discovery. Happy discovering!
Laurette Bennhold-Samaan (PC/HQ 1994-01) currently is the Vice President of Human Resources to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) an international NGO providing democratic institution building for over 30 years. She is herself an international executive with over thirty years of experience in world-class companies and organizations including Accenture, The World Bank, Honda of America, and the Peace Corps. Previously she was the Chief Operating Officer for Aperian Global (Global talent development consulting company serving one-third of the Fortune Global 100 and academic institutions, international organizations, and NGOs in over 85 countries.) Prior to that, she was Accenture’s Senior Manager of Global Mobility supporting international assignments. Laurette has been a trail-blazer in most of her positions; co-creating the global mobility department at The World Bank and as the first Cross-Cultural Specialist with the Peace Corps (1994- 2001). Laurette delivered programs in more than 50 countries worldwide. She is also on the board of the International Society for Intercultural, Education, Training and Research (SIETAR) and African Education Network (AEN). She holds a Master in International Affairs focusing on cross-cultural communications and international business and has authored and co-authored several books. Born in Egypt, Laurette has lived in Nigeria, Germany, and Canada. Today she lives in Virginia.