The world is a melting pot of cultures. Every country, culture, region, or religion has different rules, regulations, rituals, and norms. Today, the world has become smaller and interactions between different cultures, especially at the workplace, take place on a daily basis. It is therefore essential for leaders in all organizations to be able to understand that people exhibit different behaviors that can be most certainly attributed to the difference in cultures.

The Culture Map focuses on how culture changes perceptions. It is a great guide for global managers and leaders to understand cultural idiosyncrasies and tailor their communication accordingly for different parts of the world. Moreover, understanding varied cultural backgrounds and thus the inherent perceptions can help in reducing miscommunication.

Erin Meyer charts out eight culture scales that help in grasping the various cultural communication styles all over the world.

Scale 1 – The Communication Scale

Communication is at the crux of all forms of interaction. Understanding how communication differs in cultures, Meyer charts out the communication scale that can help understand values, temperaments, and sense of humor. The communication scale has low-context and high-context cultures. The differences between the two can be attributed to the history of the country.

  • Low-context cultures have precise and clear styles of communication where there are lesser chances of misinterpretation. Countries such as the US and Australia are low-context because their history is shorter, more recent, and has influences of immigrants that required communication to be precise.
  • High-context cultures have layered and subtle communication styles, where one requires to employ a lot of reading between the lines. Countries such as Japan and Korea are high-context cultures mainly due to the homogeneity in population. These countries have a long history, giving them more time to develop nuances. For example, in Japanese ‘kuuki yomenai’ translates to ‘ someone who cannot read the air’, essentially meaning a person who doesn’t understand the ‘between-the-lines’.

No country can be completely low-context or high-context.  For example, France is more ‘high-context’ in comparison with Germany, but low-context when compared to China. There are varying degrees and therefore it is important to be able to strike a balance while communicating with teams that are multi-cultural in nature. While communicating with people from high-context cultures, one has to be attuned to the meaning of body language and gestures. On the other hand, communication with a low-context culture will require more specific, precise, and clear communication.

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer
The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

Scale 2 – The Evaluating Scale

The evaluating scale is a measure of how one gives and receives feedback. Feedback in the corporate world works like a double-edged sword, especially when one attaches culture to it. Feedback cultures can be either direct or indirect.

  • Direct feedback cultures include forthright language and use absolute descriptions to emphasize the point. Words such as ‘totally’, ‘strongly’, etc. are used to give feedback in direct cultures. Direct feedback styles do not refrain from giving criticisms in front of a group. Countries such as Russia and Israel are examples.
  • Indirect feedback cultures, on the other hand, are subtler, use gentle words, and mask negative feedback with positive words. Indirect feedback cultures mostly use words suck as, ‘maybe’, ‘kind of’, etc. criticisms in indirect cultures are given privately.

Considering the communication and evaluation scale together, we see that cultures can be divided into four categories – 

  • Low-Context and Direct-Feedback like Germany
  • High-Context and Direct-Feedback like Russia
  • Low-Context and Indirect-Feedback like the USA
  • High-Context and Indirect-Feedback like Japan

Managers should keep these four categories in mind while communicating with people from different cultures keeping their backgrounds in mind. This will help to eliminate the risk of sounding offensive to the opposite person, especially while providing feedback. For example, while communicating with a person from a culture that is high-context and indirect feedback like Japan, the manager should avoid giving feedback in front of others.

Scale 3 – Persuading Scale 

To manage a globally and culturally diverse team, it is important to understand how cultures affect persuasion. The persuasion scale tells us how people are inclined to reasoning to successfully understand and commence a task. The persuasion scale is divided into principles-first reasoning and applications-first reasoning.

  • The principles-first reasoning uses general principles and deduction to draw conclusions by questioning the ‘why’. They are more inclined to the reasoning behind the request. The French and the Italians fall in the principles-first persuasion scale.
  • The Applications-first reasoning is inductive in nature, where persuasion is driven by practice. Cultures such as the US and Canada are more focused on the ‘how’ of a given task.

When managers have to deal with mixed cultures, it is best to alternate between explaining the why to the ‘principles-first’ crowd and showing the ‘applications-first’ the how of the task.

Scale 4 – The Leading Scale

It is obvious that culture affects the leading styles of managers and leaders as well. Therefore, even as an employee in a global network, it is imperative to have knowledge of how cultures affect the workspace.

The leading scale has an egalitarian culture and a hierarchical culture at two ends of the spectrum.

  • Egalitarian styles of leading in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark have flat organizational structures. With a narrow gap between employees and managers, the working relationship is egalitarian. For example, egalitarian cultures do not shy from managers and subordinates being on a first-name basis with each other.
  • Hierarchical structures such as Nigeria and China have gaps between levels that are clearly visible. In such culture styles, communication as well as decision-making follows a clear hierarchical structure. 

Cultural differences in leading styles, according to Professor André Lauren, are hugely affected by the history of the country/region. For example, the history of France shows the influences of the Roman Empire’s hierarchical structures and central political standing. On the other hand, hierarchical structures leading in countries such as Sweden are seen due to the impact of the Vikings.

Therefore working styles with people from egalitarian cultures should be inclusive, where employees are felt as being part of the big decisions. For people in hierarchical cultures, managers should invite employees to give their opinions.

Scale 5 – The Deciding Scale

While the leading scale gives an idea of how decision-making works in different cultures, there is a separate cultural scale for decision-making altogether. The deciding scale can be consensual, or top-down

  • Consensual scale – Cultures with consensual deciding scales involve everyone in the decision-making process. The final decision is made after all concerned reach a consensus. This type of deciding scale helps in making decisions faster. Countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands are examples of consensual deciding scale.
  • Top-down scale – Such deciding scales follow a hierarchical structure where those on the top of the ladder – the leadership, mostly make the decisions. While decisions are made faster on this scale, the need for regular alterations makes implementing changes slower. Countries such as India and China follow such a deciding scale.

The Ringi-system in Japan is an interesting mix of the consensual and top-down decision scales. In this system, a ringisho  – a proposal document is passed between the mid-management to edit. The document is then passed on to the next management level. This process is repeated until the document reaches the top-most level.

When it comes to decision-making styles, it is best for managers to stick to one style, and decide early on, whether the decision-making system itself will be fixed or whether the management is open to flexibility.

Scale 6 – The Trusting Scale

Trust is a factor that is central to all business negotiations to be successful. Trust can be divided into cognitive trust and affective trust, where cognitive trust refers to the trust that is built by working with someone for a long time and establishing reliability, and affective trust stems out of emotions. Such trust is often attributed to close relationships such as friends and family.

Therefore, the trusting scale has high task-based and high relationship-based measures.

  • High task-based scale – In countries such as the US and the Netherlands, the trust factor is created by achievements in business relations and profits. Such trust can be forged as well as dissolved easily.
  • High relationship-based scale – Countries such as Brazil and China form trust on the basis of shared personal relations and experiences. Such cultures believe that a trusting partnership needs time and effort to be nurtured.

Trust in any business relationship is vital for success, irrespective of the cultural context that affects it. That said, an effective high relationship-based trust works with all cultures. It is therefore a better form of trust to build than high task-based that works only with a few cultures.

Scale 7 – The Disagreeing Scale

Disagreements are natural and inevitable in a social construct. However, different cultures perceive disagreements in different ways. Based on cultures, disagreements can be confrontational or they endeavor to avoid confrontations. 

  • Confrontational – Cultures that are confrontational by nature, such as France and Israel, are able to separate the person from their proposed idea that they do agree with. This outlook does not negatively affect relationships in disagreements.
  • Avoid confrontations – On the other hand, cultures such as in Japan and Indonesia have cultures that believe that open confrontation can disrupt the harmonious setting of a group. They also believe that the idea a person puts forth is not separated from the person, therefore disagreeing with the idea is considered equal to disagreeing with the person.

Additionally, disagreements are also affected by whether emotions in the culture are expressive or inexpressive in style. For example, while both France and Germany have a confrontational culture, they differ in styles where Germans are mostly objective and fairly inexpressive, preferring to keep emotions out of the way of disagreements. France on the other hand, though confrontational by culture is expressive by style.

Working in a culture mix, it is always better to approach disagreements with caution. It is better to steer disagreements to constructive critiques rather than individual criticisms.

Scale 8 – The Scheduling Scale

Perception of time and schedule differ from culture to culture and can range from linear to flexible on the scheduling scale.

  • Linear schedules – Linear styles focus on one task before they move to the next one and prefer to adhere to deadlines. Moreover, such cultures find it impolite to shift attention from one task to the other without finishing the first task.
  • Flexible schedules – Cultures such as Kenya and Saudi Arabia are flexible where timelines are concerned and believe in multi-tasking. Different topics can be addressed at the same time, and adaptability is a value that holds more weightage.

Managers handling different cultures should be able to understand the differences between flexible and linear cultures and use culture schedules accordingly for individuals. At the same time, the manager should fix the schedule style for the team as a whole and adapt and change when necessary. 

Conducting business and leadership in the melting pot of cultures can seem like a daunting task. But understanding the nuances using the eight scales can give any management an edge to understanding how people work in different cultures.  Moreover, these scales help in creating effective communication within cultures and help in maintaining a successful, harmonious relationship within global teams.