“Scales” Over Our Eyes
Erin Meyer’s work compiles cutting edge research into one location as it pertains to cultural mapping and cross-cultural communication. Meyer’s book The Culture Map focuses primarily on cultural competency within the context of business, however, her work is applicable to a variety of industries and contexts. She distills cultural difference into an applicable tool that relativizes and charts cultural differences based eight scales – those scales are communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling. Each scale has two poles between which all cultures can be charted. For example, the two poles of the evaluating scale are direct negative feedback and indirect negative feedback. Similarly scheduling is polarized by linear-time and flexible-time. Erin mixes both extensive research and personal stories and anecdotes to enable to reader to understand the vast differences, many of which are unseen, that cultures carry, and why understanding these differences, at least in part, can build better cross-cultural relationships on a variety of levels.
I was most struck by the scale of communicating, and its poles of high context and low context. High context implies that most of what is communicated is done so around and between what is actually spoken. Low context cultures are quite explicit and direct, and these differences, when unconscious to either party, can lead to miscommunication and relational discord. This is certainly crucial when dealing in business across cultures such as the Japanese and the British, as Meyer provides as an example. However, I want to focus on how this may play out within the US.
Erin Meyer offers an excellent gift in cultural mapping tool. Though she’s explicit about being anti-reductionistic, I feel she conflates culture and country (I’m certainly open to pushback and discussion here). For example, she is clear that French people are not all the same, and warns against characterizing people based on country of origin or residence. However, in such a highly globalized world, I’m not sure grouping culture by country provides an accurate, or even appropriate, picture of how people think, feel, act, and believe. From a US perspective I see an issue with grouping the entire country together. Even if the USA’s cultural map is an average or central point, the fact that the United States is seen as a single culture under Meyer’s research while various African countries are separated, is problematic to me.
For example, one of the Africa countries she highlights is Kenya, which has a population of roughly 53 million people (2020). The US however, has a population of 329 million (2020). How can these two countries be compared apples to apples as only two cultures? Obviously Meyer’s work focuses on international business relationships, and she does make it clear that various groups within a culture fall in different places on a culture map, so I know the reductionistic leanings are not her intent. I do think there are some implicit bias in how countries/cultures are broken down and analyzed. In some ways, I feel this book offers a template for doing more in depth work in our local, regional, and national context. I would be curious has cultural mapping would work strictly within a US context.
These is currently much polarization on religious, political, economic, social, and relationship issues within the US, and I feel Erin Meyer’s cultural mapping tool would be helpful for seeing commonalities, differences, and find a way to engage across the scales to address the needs and assumptions of people from various parts of the United States.
As a shadow-work facilitator, I always look for how a person, group, or even nation presents itself, then I look for what kind of shadow that presentation creates. The United States of America is an odd name for a country, isn’t it? What is the name presenting? At face value it is presenting an image of unity, so my question for our collective shadow would be, tell me about where you feel disunity. In order to arrive at an answer, I feel this culture mapping tool could clue us in to how vastly different people in the US think, feel, communicate, and behave.
As Christian leaders this may be most valuable within the context of theology, where there is so much difference, disagreement, and perhaps unnecessary strife. For example, how do evangelicals, mainliners, exvangelicals, agnostics, and Jungians (for that matter), fall on Meyer’s eight scales? This would help us relativize our positions and perhaps have meaningful conversations moving forward.
5 responses to ““Scales” Over Our Eyes”
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Michael, I appreciate your push back on Meyer’s book. It is a hard balance in this work of relativity.
You say, “These is currently much polarization on religious, political, economic, social, and relationship issues within the US, and I feel Erin Meyer’s cultural mapping tool would be helpful for seeing commonalities, differences, and find a way to engage across the scales to address the needs and assumptions of people from various parts of the United States.” ……….In what ways do you see this being a helpful tool?
Michael, as usual you ask some very interesting questions. I agree that it difficult to create one set of cultural maps for the USA. It is far too diverse and is constantly changing. How would you propose using the culture map information within your world of Newberg?
Michael, I agree with you observation about the difference between countries and cultures. The culture of Utah with its Mormon influence is markedly different than the culture I grew up with in the northeast around NYC. I was curious about how the nations got plotted on the scale of the different dimensions. It seems there is significant research behind her conclusions but it is not presented in Meyer’s book. I feel like the book can use an appendix with some presentation of the research method at the very least. Can you say more about what it means to be a “shadow-work facilitator?” I think I know the context in which you do that but what is your “job description” – what would you call success in that role?
I appreciate the feedback on Meyer that you present. I think you might be interested in her other tools that she has available which include personal, team and corporate culture mapping tools. These allow for greater levels of personalization on the scales rather than only identifying with the the broad generalization of identifying with a specific culture.
While I understand your concerns and questions as it could easily fall within similar veins to “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity,” I have found it incredibly useful in the intercultural work I do as it is not meant to be the sole tool for training and development but more so help individuals see their relative positioning in areas to the different contexts in which they are going to be traveling to and working with. For me, it has allowed for greater conversation towards the points that you have raised in your reflection.
I’d be interested to know after your time in South Africa what components of the scales you found accurate and which you found discrepancies from given where Meyer places South Africans on the scales.
Michael, some great thoughts and questions. I had a similar thought in the back of my mind as I was reading the book, regarding the more broad generalizations. Certainly, the US is more broad that indicated in this book. We see these differences in our work context (some more than others), our communities, relationships, and possibly even our own families. Shelly (my wife) and I were recently discussing that our kids (and even us to a degree) feel as though they are third culture kids. They have been born and raised in low-income communities where we have worked and lived the past twenty years. On one hand, they identify and understand our community, but for various reasons they are also never fully accepted into the community. They experience the same thing in the suburban context (where our church is) in that on one hand they fit it, but at the same time, culturally they are different.
All that said, I agree, the broad generalizations don’t work. However, I believe for the purpose of this book, these broader generalizations served their purpose.