Funniest Book I’ve Read, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures.
Humour comes in many forms, but the best experience of it is unexpected. This week I will unpack my experience of Cultural Mapping through the stories of two Americans, a group of Asians and the tragic tale of a seventeen-year-old girl.
You have to love Americans. By and large they are positive, filled with self-assurance, have an opinion on just about anything, and they are always happy to share that opinion with anyone who has ears. I realise that’s a massive generalisation, but generalisations point to a general truth, so I’m comfortable with the anecdotal observation. However, it is a problem for Americans working in New Zealand. I ministered with an Americo-Los-Angelean (is that a word?) Baptist pastor some years ago who almost lost his mind working in New Zealand churches. He said to me,
“In America, you know you’re doing well because people tell you all the time. When the positive reinforcement stops, you know you’re heading into a storm. In New Zealand, the opposite is true, no news is the very best news. The only time Kiwi’s comment is when they aren’t happy.”
He didn’t survive his New Zealand ministry. Though he was Americo-typical from a New Zealand perspective, he had to too much sun on the Pacific Coast of the States and tended to be a little sensitive to the lack of personal encouragement. But that wasn’t the case for the New Yorker who came to New Zealand a couple of years later. He had the same general demeanour as Mr Sunshine, but when emotionally threatened he turned in to Rocky Balboa and sounded just a touch like him too. He was actually a great guy, and I liked him. Unfortunately, he didn’t last too long either. Unlike Mr Sunshine from California, he didn’t leave the country feeling miserable, he left because the ‘closed fist counselling method’ isn’t well appreciated in this part of the world.
I now move to the Asian population. Often considered by the less-well-travelled as, ‘all the same’, nothing could be further from the truth. A couple of churches back I was the senior pastor of a Baptist church with three congregations, one of which was Mandarin speaking and we employed a Mandarin speaking associate pastor. It transpired that congregation would be one of my most complex leadership tasks. Apart from all speaking Mandarin, there were few cultural similarities. The congregation was small at around one hundred people but made up of folk from north and south China, Macau and Hong Kong. Then there were those from Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. Mandarin was their trade language, but most had home languages that were dialectally and often linguistically different from each other, along with cultural nuances that were enough to unleash war. Even more exciting, they didn’t much like each other. All their countries of origin had bad history and despite the generations that have past that history wasn’t far from the surface. Even though the associate pastor was the pastoral leader, no decision could be agreed up until I turned. I heard the arguments, thought deeply, agreed with a position and it was settled. But that couldn’t happen with the associate. I had no idea what I was doing. So, I met with an individual from each cultural background and asked them to explain how communities worked, leadership was exercised and the main struggles they had in New Zealand. It was eye opening, stretching, challenging, and very helpful in broadening my understanding of how complex and powerful human culture is. I think it was the missiologist and theologian, Leslie Newbigin, who remarked, ‘in India, if you scratch the skin of a Christian, you’ll find a Hindu lurking beneath. In London, if you scratch the skin of a Christian, you’ll find a secular humanist just beneath the surface.’ (can’t remember the location).
Now for the seventeen-year-old girl. In this case, my daughter. I titled this post, The Funniest Book I’ve Read, because as I was reading it I was mired in a cultural experience so painful, so confusing, and so debilitating that I have run out of adjectives to describe it. Our house suffered ‘daughtergeddon’. To this day, I have no idea what happened and probably never will. There was gnashing of teeth, tears, accusations of controlling parents (which is absolutely true of course), the need for independence, respect, privacy, and on the list went. But of course, this defcon reducing event also involved a mother and wife, and I was very aware that no matter which way this meltdown went, I was already in trouble. I can’t remember which chapter of Meyers book I was in, but it had something to do with scales of cultural mapping. So, in the midst of our drama, I thought (my first big mistake) I would offer some wisdom to my wife (second massive mistake) from the book (third huge mistake) from the scale below. It was intended tongue-in-cheek to reveal how teenagers could also be placed on the cultural map too. I suggested that we were in a high context, confrontational, relationally based, hierarchical moment, and that we were all in different places on the map. I found the book to be rather funny at that moment. No one else did. Go figure. So, I then proceed to take a bit of control (fourth unforgivable mistake). I thought (I did it again) I would take a linear approach to navigating the problems one at a time, which would help untangle the issues and that this straight forward and clear way of thinking and communication would inevitably lead to peace and harmony. Nope. I was riding on a delusional highway to happiness while my daughter was still stuck on the emotional edge of spaghetti junction.
It might sound awful, but this book is now the funniest I have read this year. Every time I pick it up now, I just laugh at my own incomprehensible stupidity. I have navigated all sorts of cultural leadership quagmires over the years, but I still cannot fathom the linguistically confounding socio-biology of the teenage culture. As it stands, inasmuch as the map below is helpful, I still don’t know where to put my daughter, my wife, or myself.
That’s all I have to write about this book, or this week.
 Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Edition
 Erin Meyer, “Eight-Scale Tool for Mapping Cultural Differences,” South China Morning Post, 23 May 2014, Accessed 31 January, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/business/economy/article/1518529/mapping-global-cultural-differences-offers-advantages-business.
Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016. Kindle Edition
———. “Eight-Scale Tool for Mapping Cultural Differences.” Last modified 24 May 2014, Accessed 31 January, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/business/economy/article/1518529/mapping-global-cultural-differences-offers-advantages-business.