Map the Cultures Where You Work
Jesus, at times, was misunderstood; so was the Apostle Paul. All of us have been, perhaps especially when it comes to sharing our Christian faith with others. It is an inescapable aspect of human communication that the message one is trying to transmit is oftentimes distorted and misunderstood. In the book, “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business,” Erin Meyer wants to teach individuals and corporations who engage in international, cross-cultural communication to better understand and navigate the differences of other cultures. Communication is critical in business and Meyer’s justification for writing this book is found on page 12: “We are all part of a global network (real or virtual, physical or electronic) where success requires navigating through wildly different cultural realities.” The book does not neatly fall into one classification only: it is part Self-Improvement, part International Studies, and part Interpersonal Relations.
It is a timely offering because global business and indeed the human experience continues to grow ever more interdependent and international. Interactions between different cultures, even when using the same language, working in the same industry, can quickly go wrong and potentially ruin a business initiative. The book does a thorough job of showing where the potential landmines can be found in international business and how not to step on them.
She succeeds in giving practical advice on how to work with others from different cultural backgrounds. At the same time, the book provides substantive historical background factors that have developed different cultures. On pages 97-101 she explains the different historical circumstances that have shaped certain societies. Starting in the sixteenth century, thinkers like Francis Bacon modeled inductive thinking in Great Britain. In the seventeenth century, philosophers like Rene Descartes shaped mainland Europe in a different way with his emphasis on evidence to prove or disprove theories. The book would lose some credibility is she didn’t include this depth of analysis. There are profoundly significant differences to understand with other cultures and a look back into history is necessary. The business person (or in our case, the minister or Christian worker) who does not take the time to understand this will eventually misstep and offend the very people with whom they wish to interact. Being “nice” or “patient” with others is helpful and necessary, but it is not going to be enough when interacting with other cultures for any length of time.
Meyer’s book correctly aims to provide actionable steps and practical advice on how to bridge the differences between people. It walks the line between theory and practice admirably. Ultimately the book is a great “How To” manual on working with others different than yourself.
An earlier book cohort eleven read, Kathryn Schulz’s, “Being Wrong” compliments what Meyer teaches the reader. Frequently we are wrong without even knowing it, or we lack self-awareness about our own actions and words. Sometimes our situational awareness is incomplete. For all these failings, both books provide a helpful remedy. Meyer’s book builds on Schulz’s human cognition discoveries and applies them to international business and interpersonal, cross-cultural relations.
Another book that speaks to Meyer’s insights is Robert Kegan’s “An Everyone Culture.” In Kegan’s work, he argues that organizations do best when they build an environment that encourages constant personal development among their employees. This goal can and should be a part of teams that work internationally. Meyers takes Kegan’s premise and describes the many ways that communication can go wrong in pursuit of that goal when working cross-culturally.
A good example is when Meyer states on page 39, “The United States is the lowest-context culture in the world and Japan is the highest-context culture in the world.” She goes to great length on what this means and her insights are helpful for individuals who will be working among different cultures. This takes courage and in this respect Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve” is applicable. I can imagine Friedman saying, “Be brave, don’t be shy about your ability to lead, but do so wisely, with the focus on serving others.”
The book is organized into eight chapters and the material unfolds strategically with each chapter building on the previous. Chapter three is about persuasion and sales and to me this was the most interesting chapter. I’ve been in sales for many years in the business world and how to persuade someone to your way of thinking is a challenge even with someone who is part of your own culture. How to persuade someone who is part of another culture adds a layer of complexity and challenge. Any international salesperson would do well to read and reread this chapter. The idiosyncrasies of different cultures reveal themselves in the most surprising ways. Innocent assumptions can quickly become acts of disrespect.
Chapter six was also a highlight as it is about trust: how to build it and how it can diminish. The most interesting part of this chapter was the diagram on page 171 where two different types of trust are depicted. Task orientated trust is emphasized in the United States and Germany, among others. Relationship-based trust is more indicative in countries like Saudi Arabia, China and Nigeria. Both take time to build and both can be broken quickly.
She wrote the book in 2014 but a lot has changed since then. The Covid pandemic expediated online business and online education; indeed, online everything. An updated book could include a chapter on, “How to get the most out of international zoom meetings” or similar. Online meetings that are cross-cultural are going to grow in popularity in the years ahead. Meyer’s insights could easily be applied to the zoom meetings. It is a new way of communicating and just like all new mediums (telegraph, radio, telephone, television, email) the medium itself alters the message. Online meetings, like all new communication mediums, provide opportunities for humans to come together or be pushed apart. Meyer’s book helps to ensure it is the former.
5 responses to “Map the Cultures Where You Work”
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Troy again thank you for your reflection/summary. I thought you might indeed like her historical references 🙂
What aspects of Meyer’s book could you combine to “write” that book on effective zoom meetings?
You may be interested in the book Meyer co-authored in 2020 titled “No Rules Rule” predominantly focused on Netflix and how they adjusted to advanced technology.
I, too, would love an updated cultural text that expands upon the virtual environment we find ourselves in.
Troy, great summary and connections other books we’ve read. Since you’ve joined the staff at your church, do you see a consistent culture among the staff or the congregation? Was the transition into you role easy or hard because of the culture that was already there? Also, seeking advice for a Lead Pastor, what would have helped you quickly understand “how things are done around here?” It seems to me that people on staff and those joining a staff all make many assumptions and do not spend enough time discussing staff culture. (I’m confessing my own lack of that in the last question!)
Excellent summary of the book. Very thorough and provides a great map to what Meyer’s was communicating.
I agree, it would be fascinating for her to update the book with all that has taken place in the last 8 years, especially since COVID.
What do you think has been the primary concept that has changed?
Troy, Thank you for the excellent summary and outlook on rise of virtual platforms.
Can you share some insights on how people can develop or cultivate a better trust over zoom/digital platforms?