communicating across cultures

Working across diverse cultural contexts

A review of The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

Effective communication is probably one of the hardest skills in life to master, even tougher than Gandha Bherundasana. Even when you are speaking the same language it’s fraught with challenges. Unsurprisingly communication across cultures requires a honed skill-set and careful reflection.

I am a Brit living in France so have first-hand experience of messing up communication. Initially, it was vocabulary based, but over time, I made a number of cultural faux-pas. This is why I decided to read more about working with other cultures and Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map came highly recommended. Most people think that there is little cultural divide between France and the UK, which seems true if your differentiating reference point is Japan.

There are, however, many differences. For example, as Meyer explains, France is:

a higher-context language than English… a good business communicator will use second-degeee communication in everyday life.

The French language has fewer words than English (which has 500,000 compared to France’s 70,000) meaning that words rely more heavily on their context.

Who is this book for?

COVID-19 is going to change the way we work forever and the chances that you will work collaboratively with people from a different culture to your own have increased. This is why I’d argue that this is a book for everyone. Unless that is you are someone who sees no benefit in seeing the world from a new perspective and gaining an understanding of your own cultural biases.

What you gain from reading The Culture Map

Erin Meyer is a professor at INSED and has a wealth of experience in helping teams work more closely and leaders communicate effectively. The examples in the book are rich and varied which made it an incredibly engaging read. I loved this book!

One of the most valuable concepts in the book is the ability to view cultural traits on a scale and appreciate their difference relative to your own culture. This is the key to understanding both ourselves and others. We all have a separate lens and there is no universal way to communicate.

Key lessons

Acknowledgement rather than adaptation

To thine own self be true

Polonius says in Hamlet and the same is true for your approach to communication. Often trying to mirror the local style can have disastrous results. You can miss the mark or seem disingenuous. A better approach is to acknowledge the varied cultural approaches, explain them and make small adaptations. Finding ways for all parties to appreciate and understand the differences is a much better path forwards.

What you say isn’t what people hear

This is true for all forms of communication but is especially true across cultures. What will be understood from your words varies widely. There is a wonderful table of an Anglo-Dutch Translation guide, which you can read more about in this LinkedIn post, shows just how varied our comprehension can be:

Anglo Dutch translation guide


Even time is different

When I moved to France people talked about le “petit quart d’heure Creusoise” after spending years living in France I don’t think it is unique to Creuse. The translation is the small 15 minutes and it essentially means that if you arrive 15 minutes late, then you are on time as everyone has this margin to work within.

Chapter 8 of The Culture Map talks about the cross-cultural perceptions of time. In countries like the US and the UK the idea of time is very different to India for example. I had my own first-hand experience of this when I was trying to get a ferry from Sumatra, I was desperately trying to explain that I needed to leave on the day I’d booked a ticket, everyone else was bewildered at my frustration over leaving a day later. There was literally no difference for them between today and tomorrow.

Again, the key is to understand what type of time your colleagues are following, is it linear, which promotes promptness and organisation, or flexible where adaptability is prioritised.

In conclusion

Humans are varied and wonderful because of that. We have personal quirks, but what we consider normal is often dictated by our culture. It is complex and you are likely to make mistakes but you can work to try and understand how your words might be understood by your audience. You can also take the time to try and better understand where other cultures sit on the scale relative to your own, so that you don’t listen with only your own cultural filter. Normally when I read I book I bend the corners of many pages to mark important passages. The Culture Map remains as good-as-new but this is because each page was interesting and because it was around cultural interplay there was no neat way to mark one section. You just need to read the whole thing.

The whole concept of culture and how this impacts on communication is fascinating. We are a French/British household and currently, our children are more French in their approach to language and reflection because it is the dominant culture. However, this may change and I cannot wait to see the impact on their thought processes and communication. I expect to be surprised by how I’ve changed when I return to the UK, as I doubt I can see these differences myself. Especially if I start rocking up to meetings 15 minutes late with a croissant.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

About Good Words Online

This blog was designed to be a home for all the content I’ve created over the years. It is a mix of book reviews, personal reflections and business learnings. There is no definitive way to live or work, we all make our own choices. I in no way think I am right about any particular subject. This is simply about sharing what I’ve learnt and creating an online reminder for myself.

The name, good words, has no religious references. We can’t be good all the time. Each of us will make mistakes. All we can do is try to learn from them and try and attempt to be a little better next time.

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