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The Culture Map

Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

By Erin Meyer
15-minute read
The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer

The Culture Map provides a framework for handling intercultural differences in business and illustrates how different cultures perceive the world. It helps us understand these differences, and in doing so improves our ability to react to certain behaviors that might have once seemed strange. With this knowledge, we can avoid misunderstandings and maintain conflict-free communication, regardless of where we are in the world.

  • Anyone who’s interested in understanding cultural differences at work
  • Anyone who wants to improve his or her communications skills
  • Anyone who is leading an international team and is facing culture clashes

Erin Meyer is a professor at INSEAD The Business School for the World and specializes in cross-cultural communication. Her work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Singapore Business Times and on Forbes.com.

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The Culture Map

Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

By Erin Meyer
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer
Synopsis

The Culture Map provides a framework for handling intercultural differences in business and illustrates how different cultures perceive the world. It helps us understand these differences, and in doing so improves our ability to react to certain behaviors that might have once seemed strange. With this knowledge, we can avoid misunderstandings and maintain conflict-free communication, regardless of where we are in the world.

Key idea 1 of 9

Being a good observer is sometimes more important than being a good speaker.

Why do we find communicating with people from other countries so challenging sometimes? We often have to deal with different temperaments, values and senses of humor.

In order to navigate these situations, we should try to avoid being what the Japanese call kuuki yomenai, which translates to someone who “cannot read the air.”

We can better “read the air” if we consider that communication styles can fall on a communicating scale, and be grouped into low-context cultures and high-context cultures.

Western countries, such as the USA or Australia, are known as low-context cultures, where communication is precise and clear in order to avoid misinterpretation. Contrastingly, communication in high-context cultures in countries such as Japan or Korea are more subtle and layered and often require reading between the lines to understand what is meant.

No country, however, is 100 percent low or high context. French managers, for instance, tend to be more high-context than German managers, but are low-context compared to Chinese managers.

Why do different countries have different contexts? The answers can be found in history. High-context cultures like Japan have had largely a homogenous population, therefore people became tuned to subtle nuances in communication and developed skills in “reading the air.”

American history, on the other hand, is much shorter and has been strongly influenced by immigrants, requiring their communication to be explicit to avoid misunderstandings.

So how can you work well with other cultures? You need to strike a balance between listening and speaking. When working with high-context cultures, listen for meaning and not what is actually spoken. Pay attention to changes in body language, like head-shaking or noticing self-restraint that shrouds the meaning of a message.

The opposite is true when working with low-context cultures. You should be as specific as possible and take time to explain yourself clearly.

When multiple cultures are working together, the most effective method of communication is to use the low-context style as this causes fewer misunderstandings.

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