People sit around a culture map of the world made of different cultural buzzwords
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In a world where diversity is ever more important for the success of business and interpersonal relationships, cross-cultural intelligence has become a must for managers. But if you’re new to working with multicultural team members, where do you start?

A go-to resource is Professor Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.

In 2014, I was leading a small team developing a new GLOBIS University course: Cross Cultural Management. Most cross-cultural seminars and training programs focus on communication tips, especially in Japan. How deeply should you bow when meeting people? How direct can you be in e-mails in a particular country? But Meyer’s book offered a much more comprehensive breakdown of what culture actually means.

The next thing I knew, I was supervising the Japanese translation of the book.

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The Critical Value of the Culture Map

What we aimed to achieve through the new GLOBIS course went beyond communication tips. We wanted to have students debate how to be an effective leader while working overseas and/or with people of different nationalities.

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In the course, we touch on the cultures of India, Bahrain, China, the United States, and Japan using case studies. As we put the course together, we were looking for a book that allowed students to pursue deeper debate for understanding cultures through both concepts and concrete business situations.

Meyer, a professor at INSEAD, had just authored The Culture Map that year. By chance, one of our team members had taken a course with her in France. After ordering her book, we quickly realized we should put it to use as soon as possible—but there was no Japanese version.

We approached Eiji Press for a translation, and the book got published a year later, on August 22. Just a few years later, thanks to great demand among Japanese businesspeople, it entered a second printing.

A bookshelf full of Erin Meyer's book The Culture Map, Japanese edition
The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer (Japanese edition) | ©Erin Meyer

People respond to The Culture Map not only because it goes beyond those go-to tips on cross-cultural communication, but also because it enables you to understand cultures on a deeper level. It does that by providing eight scales for cultural visualization.

Erin Meyer’s 8 Scales for Visualizing Culture

The Culture Map takes the smart approach of describing business situations from a cultural perspective. Many of us have experience understanding cultures through various relationships with friends or others, but a book that focuses on culture in the context of business is not so easy to find.

Before Meyer, most people turned to Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, by Geert Hofstede. He is, indeed, one of the greats of comparative culture studies, but in the twenty-plus years since his book came out, the field has not seen a major update.

Meyer’s book aims to fill that gap. In fact, one of the key aspects of The Culture Map is that it is designed so that a businessperson can make immediate use of it. It does that using eight intuitive scales for visualizing how cultural difference emerges in typical business scenarios.

1. Communicating: Low-context vs. High-context

  • Low-context: Communication is precise, simple, and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. 
  • High-context: Communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines.

2. Evaluating: Direct feedback vs. Indirect feedback 

  • Direct feedback: Negative feedback is provided frankly, bluntly, and honestly without being softened by positive feedback. 
  • Indirect feedback: Negative feedback is provided softly, subtly, and diplomatically while given within positive feedback.

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Black-and-white image of Japanese people riding escalators with strict etiquette to stand on the right side, observing a high-context culture norm

3. Persuading: Applications-first vs. Principles-first

  • Application-first: Individuals are trained to begin with a fact, statement, or opinion before adding concepts to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary.
  • Principle-first: Individuals are trained to first develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement, or opinion.

4. Leading: Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical

  • Egalitarian: The best boss is a facilitator among equals. Organizational structure is flat.
  • Hierarchical: The best boss is a strong director who leads from the front. Organizational structure is multilayered and fixed.
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    Finding your kokorozashi will unify your passions and skills to create positive change in society. This GLOBIS Unlimited course will help you develop the values and lifelong goals you need to become a strong, passion-driven leader.

5. Deciding: Consensual vs. Top-down

  • Consensual: Decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement. 
  • Top-down: Decisions are made by individuals (usually the boss). 

6. Trusting: Task-based vs. Relationship-based

  • Task-based: “You do good work consistently” means “You are reliable.” “I enjoy working with you” means “I trust you.”
  • Relationship-based: “I’ve seen who you are at a deep level, I’ve shared personal time with you over meals and drinks, and I know others well who trust you” means “I trust you.”

7. Disagreeing: Confrontational vs. Avoid confrontation

  • Confrontational: Disagreement and debate are positive for the team or organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.
  • Avoids confrontation: Disagreement and debate are negative for the team or organization. Open conflict is inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship.
  • Conflict Management

    Conflicts in the workplace are inevitable. But they can lead to positive outcomes if they’re managed well. Check out this online course for a two-step process that can help you manage conflict successfully.

8. Scheduling: Linear-time vs. Flexible-time

  • Linear-time: Focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule. Emphasis is on promptness and good organization. 
  • Flexible-time: Tasks can be changed as opportunities arise. Many things can be dealt with at once, and interruptions are acceptable.
The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer

The Culture Map explains how these eight scales apply to each country and in which context, allowing you to roughly benchmark your country’s position or corporate culture relative to others when doing business. In doing so, you equip yourself with stronger cross-cultural management tools.

It goes without saying, of course, that there are always individual differences from person to person, so these benchmarks shouldn’t be taken as universal.

Three Management Abilities to Maximize the Value of Culture Maps

In the Cross Cultural Management course, we talk about “cultural intelligence,” which is composed of three elements:

  • Cultural knowledge
  • Awareness
  • Skills to adjust your actions and behaviors according to different cultural contexts

These are distinct abilities. Knowing key cultural facts and issues is one thing, while the ability to translate such knowledge into appropriate actions and behaviors is another. In other words, understanding cultures doesn’t necessarily mean you’re prepared to interact with them.

The Culture Map is extremely useful in building overall cultural knowledge and understanding. After introducing the eight scales, Meyer goes on to give specific suggestions for how to engage with other cultures. The book is full of hints on how to put theory into practice, whether you’re trying to hack into a high-context culture or decode how cultural elements may be derailing your team meetings.

Bear in mind that how much you relate to what this book explains may vary depending on your level of exposure to diverse cultural contexts.

Once the Cross Cultural Management course was launched in Japanese, we found that debates tended to be very subdued and distant. It was common to hear, “I see, that may be one way of looking at it.” However, the same class taught in English had even Japanese participants showing stronger opinions and clearer disagreements.

We rise to meet the diversity of our international peers. There is a higher level of awareness and skill to express ourselves in a non-homogenous context. Our cross-cultural management abilities are built on actual experiences—not just understanding cultures, but dealing with them.

But to start, it’s helpful to have a good reference—such as this book.


This article is based on a talk Megumi Taoka gave on October 19, 2015, for Eiji Press and Academy Hills in Tokyo.

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