Although the pandemic put most international business travel on pause, the importance of cross-cultural communication skills never went away as global teams converged on video conferencing platforms.
Cross-cultural competence was the focus of an Aug. 9 event featuring Erin Meyer, a bestselling author and professor at INSEAD in Paris, one of the world’s top ranked business schools. The talk was part of the “Perspectives” series from the Colorado chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel and was one of the first in-person events the organization has held in more than a year.
A cosmopolitan crowd — countries of origin included Uzbekistan, Peru, Australia and Ethiopia — gathered at the Cable Center in Denver to listen to Meyer, whose work focuses on how managers navigate cultural differences in a global environment. Meyer was raised in Minnesota but has spent much of her life living and working in Europe and Africa. The presentation highlighted her research on “culture mapping,” which is the topic of her 2014 book “The Culture Map” and provides a model for understanding how cultural differences affect international business. According to Meyer, the model is based on 180,000 interviews and research conducted in more than 30 countries.
Meyer’s culture map looks at eight different aspects of communication and behavior and analyzes where different cultures fall on a scale between two extremes. For example, the first scale Meyer discussed compares “low context” and “high context” cultures. In a low context culture, people typically assume a low level of shared knowledge and reference points, and therefore communication is explicit and focuses on clarity and repetition. Countries that have historically received a lot of immigrants such as the U.S., Canada and Australia dominate the low context end of the scale.
Conversely, in high context cultures such as Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, communication tends to be more implicit and indirect, Meyer said, and people are expected to read between the lines or, as the Japanese say, “read the air.”
When people from a high context culture and a low context culture communicate, there can easily be misunderstandings. But the risk of communication problems is highest when people from two different high context cultures are interacting, Meyer noted, as they have two disparate sets of shared assumptions. Avoiding problems when working with global teams often requires moving toward “more bureaucracy” and clarity in communication, according to Meyer, along with asking for advice from people who understand the cultural nuances at play.
Another dimension Meyer considers is how people from different cultures give and receive criticism. The Dutch, Israelis and Germans tend to be the most direct when giving negative feedback, while the Japanese, Indonesians and Filipinos are the least direct, according to Meyer, and people from the U.S., UK and other Anglophone countries tend to fall in the middle.
People who are not used to receiving direct criticism might be offended or take it personally, whereas people accustomed to direct feedback may miss the message if it’s delivered too delicately.
To illustrate the latter situation, Meyer uses the example of Sabine, a French woman who was transferred to Chicago for work. When Meyer checked in with Sabine after her first performance review in the U.S., Sabine reported that it was the best review of her career and she felt she was well-suited for her new position. However, Sabine’s American boss thought otherwise and expressed his frustrations to Meyer, revealing that Sabine was at risk of losing her assignment in the U.S. if her performance didn’t improve
Americans give more positive feedback than anyone else in the world, Meyer explained, and Sabine’s boss softened his criticism by first complimenting her on what she was doing well. “By the time he got to the real message, she wasn’t even listening,” said Meyer, noting that in France, people are more direct in their criticism.
Comfort with silence also varies from culture to culture. Meyer noted that people from Latin America and India are most likely to talk at the same time or start their response before the other has finished. In Anglophone countries, the conversational pattern is more like a game of ping pong, where a response usually follows just after the first speaker has finished talking. East Asians and the Finns tend to converse in a “speak-pause-speak” rhythm, Meyer said, and it’s this third group that loses out in cross-cultural conversations because they are waiting for a silence that never comes.
Meyer shared a story about a Chinese client, Mr. Chen, who started working for a British company and was invited to visit the London headquarters. He spent the flight preparing remarks he wanted to share, but he ended up remaining silent during the actual meeting and later overheard his British colleague say to another European that “it certainly seems like Chen has little to add.” Chen eventually started raising his hand when he wanted to speak.
“My favorite thing that has happened over the last year with COVID is that Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams have given us a method for dealing with this,” Meyer said, adding that the chat box and “raise hand” functions of those video conferencing platforms allow for more diverse voices to be heard. To ensure everyone has a chance to talk, managers can set aside time in meetings for those who haven’t spoken yet, she said, or ask teammates to self-correct if they find themselves dominating the conversation.
“Whether you’re working over Zoom … on the phone or face to face, please recognize that just because someone doesn’t speak doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s culture map model also looks at how people from different cultures approach leadership, decision-making, punctuality, disagreements, persuasion and trust. In the U.S., the Netherlands and Germany, trust is primarily built through tasks: doing good work, meeting deadlines and completing projects. However, in much of Asia and parts of the Middle East and Africa, relationships are more important when developing trust in the business world. Meyer noted that in the past 15 years, there has been a global shift in business from a task-oriented approach to increased emphasis on relationships, which reflects the shifting economic center of gravity and the rise of China, India and other emerging economies.
Meyer said that when she first wrote “The Culture Map,” she feared a backlash, as some might accuse her of “putting people in boxes” or view her as reducing cultures to stereotypes. However, she said, “I do believe that we can be sophisticated enough to recognize that individuals are all unique, and humans all have similarities,” she said. “Depending on where we’re raised, and what cultures are in us, we may have been conditioned to understand different things in different ways.”
One audience member asked whether it’s best to prioritize authenticity or adapt oneself to other cultures when doing business. Meyer encouraged doing both through “authentic flexibility,” which she compared to two legs dancing. One leg might feel more comfortable and natural to use, she said, but you can still develop skills and strength in the other leg.
“Once you get those muscles developed in the right way, then you have a choice,” she said. A person might decide to adapt while in Sweden but behave more authentically while in Kazakhstan, for example, if it is likely to lead to better results. “You can choose,” Meyer said. “This is global leadership — the ability to move back and forth from one culture to another.”