The Culture Map – Erin Meyer

The Culture Map – Erin Meyer

One popular function of The BSN’s International Leadership Academy is a book club called The Leadership Lounge. Colleagues from across the school choose a pertinent text on leadership or education, distribute copies of the text and lead colleagues through a seminar style discussion of key findings. I can never attend all of them but our use of social media ensured a session led by Rebecca Hazlett (Recruitment Co-ordinator) on The Culture Map remained live. I picked up the book two weeks later and felt compelled to write; I asked Rebecca to co-author.

Social Media can help organisations share knowledge and keep conversations running

By way of introduction to some key themes of the book, it struck us how certain cultures are represented in the popular media. Want to know why US films invariably present villains with an English accent? Read the book and find out why the special relationship is not quite what it seems…

Jeremy Irons as Scar – classic Brit baddie

Americans have a Lower Context language use than us Higher Context Brits. Americans mean what they say. And then they will often say it again. Brits don’t tend to be as transparent with language; we often use irony and misdirection. This perhaps gives the impression that we are political and sly by comparison? As Oscar Wilde once remarked:

“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”

At The BSN we work within a Dutch culture and this popular internet meme also represented the challenges of working with Brits:

Brits also use humour to deflect difficult emotional situations.

Rebecca Leading the seminar and plotting the eight scales of cultural differences of colleagues

The Culture Map is a practical tool, a map, to help decode cultural behaviour and navigate cultural differences in approach to: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing and Scheduling. It has helped us better understand colleagues from other cultures and, at the same time, helped us realise how our culture affects our own behaviour (including perhaps miss-placed humour?).

At the Leadership Lounge seminar, colleagues and guests from diverse backgrounds, including Germany, Britain, Brazil, Holland, Trinidad, America, South Africa and Canada, joined for a lively discussion to create our own map. We only scratched the surface of this huge and important topic, despite overrunning our scheduled time by half an hour.

It is not necessarily a culture’s placement on the scale that is important, rather where they are placed in relation to other cultures – relativity is the key

Actually, scheduling (the cultural approach to time-keeping and agendas) was one of the most fascinating points of difference within our group; the Brits and Dutch (linear-time end of the scale) were flabbergasted and horrified by even the thought of adopting a Brazilian, flexible, approach to appointments, which is actually no problem in Brazil – as it is often accepted that appointment times are rough approximations.

We might assume that simply being in an international environment and observing people’s behaviour, we will absorb a certain degree of cultural understanding by osmosis. But The Culture Map demonstrates the need to take a more active approach, to study culture and its impact. To understand why and how you may be misunderstood and the best way to minimise this. If culture is seemingly the root of most misunderstandings/frustrations then awareness is the key to beginning to understand it.

The book also offers some strategies for working in multicultural environments:

  • Don’t take offence
  • Assume nothing
  • Identify sources of frustration
  • Always ask for and give clarification
  • Encourage dialogue

Anyone working in an international context would benefit from reading this book. BSN colleagues, for example, need to be aware that when dealing with parents from all over the world that we may have to adjust our approach and behaviours accordingly. I also appreciate that this post has a British stamp!

The Culture Map is easy to pick up (you’ll find it in airport book shops) and you could read it in a day (if English is your mother tongue). You could well avoid falling into cultural traps as a result…

Please do leave a comment below; including any examples of cultural misunderstandings you’ve experienced.