Navigating Cultural Differences with a Culture Map

This week I’m starting to read the book The Culture Map:  Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer.   The author is a is a professor at INSEAD, one of the world’s leading international business schools.  Her work focuses on how the world’s most successful global leaders navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a multicultural environment.

I was drawn to the book because I have had a chance to live and work in Germany for one year and in Japan for five years.   But I can say sincerely that I have been interested in foreign language and cultures all my life.   At the age of 6, I was fascinated by an uncle who was visiting from Honduras where he had moved and married a Honduran woman.   He visited my mother, his older sister, to introduce her and my father to his wife Hilda.    My mother and Hilda were speaking in the living room and getting to know each other while my uncle and my father were sipping whiskey together in the dining room.   When my uncle teasingly offered me some of his whiskey, my mother and Hilda came in the room and expressed their disapproval in stereo, my mother yelling at him in English and Hilda in Spanish.   Then what he did next amazed me:   he apologized to my mother in English and then started speaking gibberish that I couldn’t understand to his wife.   Then, to my further amazement, she started speaking gibberish back to him and they seemed to understand each other.   I asked Hilda to repeat what she said, because I couldn’t understand her.   I found I still couldn’t understand her, and she explained that she was speaking another language called “Spanish.”  Well, she felt protective of me somewhat, I suppose because she and my mother had saved me from a life of premature alcoholism by their intervention, and she listened to my questions very patiently.   Soon I was fascinated by the fact that in Spanish, there’s a different word for EVERYTHING.   Although sometimes some of the words were the same like when I pointed to the piano and was disappointed by the fact that the exotic word for that object in Spanish was … “piano.”

I vowed that someday I too would be able to switch from English to other languages as easily as my uncle, and that’s what ended up happening.   But learning a language is not just the words and the grammar, but the cultural context in which it takes place.   I wanted to be a technical translator after having done a year of that kind of work translating the German portions of a book about the history of solid state physics into English.   But due to advice from my boss at the Deutsches Museum, I decided to start studying Japanese.

But when I went to enroll in the Asian Studies program, I was told that I couldn’t JUST study Japanese language.   To get a Master degree, I also needed to study the history, literature, and religious and philosophical works from Japan as well.   I didn’t see the relevance about learning about the Meiji period to knowing that the word for semiconductor is handoutai, but I took the advice of my graduate school adviser and started taking those courses.   I was so glad that I did, because they helped tremendously in understanding the Japanese language.   Why?   Because Japanese is a “high-context” culture as opposed to the “low-context” culture I grew up in the United States.   A high-context means that many of the meanings you are trying to convey are implied, rather than directly stated, meaning that your meaning is highly dependent on the cultural context.   A low-context culture like that in the United States is more explicit, and less dependent on the cultural context.

It is easy to see why a relatively homogeneous culture like that of Japan is high-context, because most people share the same cultural background.   On the other hand, the United States is made up of immigrants, most of whom do NOT share the same cultural background, and so a high-context communication would break down more often because of the differing cultural assumptions held by the speaker and listener.   This is something I puzzled over as I made many mistakes at first being explicit about saying something when I found out later that I shouldn’t have done so.   Well, gradually I made fewer and fewer mistakes … and then it was time for me to return to the United States.

It was harder for me to work in a mixed Japanese and English environment in the New York branch office of my Japanese company than it was to be in a purely Japanese environment that I was in when I worked in the home office in Tokyo.    This is because I learned cultural codes in Japan that I was able to operate somewhat comfortably in.  But in New York, I had to change the cultural code immediately when speaking to an American as opposed to a Japanese person, and this type of “cultural translation” is harder than the translation of the Japanese language to English and vice versa.   The hardest part was when I was in a meeting with BOTH Japanese and Americans.   I felt a little schizophrenic.    But I found it easier in such a mixed meeting to prepare each side in advance for how the other side would act or react.   By supplying them with “cultural subtitles” so to speak, the other side’s reaction was not as surprising, and after a while they would get used to it.

So when I saw Erin Meyer’s book, I thought this is fantastic:   she has not only the high-context/low-context distinction, but seven other dimensions of cultural difference that she discusses in her book.    I want to read all eight chapters and reflect on what I’ve read by trying to relate it to the far more limited multicultural and international experience I have had in comparison with the author.

A couple of preliminary remarks from her introduction seem in order.   Let’s use the Japanese vs. American culture distinction between high-context and low-context as a reference point.

1. The cultural continuum is a relative one, not an absolute one

In other words, this is going to be a relative scale, so Japan is a high-context culture in comparison with a low-context culture.  In other words, you won’t see her saying “Japan rates a 0 in the Fujita cultural context scale.”   (The Fujita scale is something that actually exists, but it is a scale for measuring the relative strength of tornados, …)

2. These are maps of cultural averages

Although we say that Japan is a high-context culture, this is short-hand for saying “the AVERAGE Japanese communicates in a manner that is highly dependent on cultural context.”   Many Japanese I knew that were more direct were so because that suited their personality style.   In the Japanese company I worked for, many Japanese businessmen were assigned to work in the United States for a period of two years and some saw it as being banished to the cultural hinterlands, and were very relieved upon return to their home country.   I remember speaking to his wife at the party we held for them before they returned, and she was visibly excited about going back to Japan.

On the other hand, my Japanese boss who worked in the New York office liked the more direct American style of doing business, and I remember talking to his wife, who also liked the more direct style of communication, as well as the relative freedom she had compared to other Japanese women to pursue her own career during their stay in the United States.   When I asked her how she looked forward to her return, her sigh told me everything even before she said, “I’m going to miss living here in America.”

3. Being a “good communicator” is culturally dependent

What works well in your own country and makes you a good communicator may be exactly what makes you perceived to be a bad communicator in another.   In fact, a “good communicator” in a certain language is a person who exhibits an even more extreme version of the dominant cultural tendency.   So improving and being a better communicator  in the United States (i.e., more direct) may cause you to be an even worse communicator in Japan.

4.  Communicating is not just speaking, but listening

I learned in Japan that it was important in living in a high-context culture to a) study the cultural context so you have a common basis for understanding and b) listen to what is meant rather than what was literally said.    When I made two points A and B and someone pointedly says, “I agree with you regarding point A,” I started to automatically think the person was telling me “but on the other hand, I don’t agree with you regarding point B” if that person’s opinion about point B was not expressed.    Asking clarifying questions is important, so I would then say something about point B to elicit from that person whether my assumption (that they don’t agree) was true or not.

Likewise, I had to learn how to translate the high-context, indirect way of saying things in Japanese to the more direct American way if I was translating between the two.   One day there was a negotiation between the Japanese team and the American team about a proposal the American team had sent over.   The official interpreter was late, and they said, “why don’t you fill in for him until he gets here, which should only be a few minutes.”   Well, the Japanese wanted to talk about anything BUT the business proposal it seemed, and the Americans were getting impatient, thinking they were were being given the brush-off.   At one point, the head of the American team said, “I’m sorry, but I have to know–will you be able to respond to our proposal by the end of the month.”   Now the head of the Japanese team, said “sore wa chotto muzukashii to omoimasu kedo, moshi dekireba gambatte mimasho…” which means “I think that may be a little difficult, but if we can we will try to our best …” and I turned to the American manager and said, “No.”   Boy, did I get in trouble.   The American manager said, “all of that means NO in Japanese.”   Well, I told him what the Japanese guy literally meant, but then I had to say that what he really meant was “NO.”   The Japanese guy was livid, because I had said openly what he was trying NOT to say in such a manner, which was that they couldn’t deliver on what the American team had asked them to do.   But instead of papering over the disagreement, what I said exposed it to the harsh light of day.

Just then the interpreter came, and I was never so glad to see anybody in my entire life.   I told her what had happened, and after her eyes widened in a short look of alarm, she stepped in and like a true professional and communicated in a way that each side was comfortable with.   The underlying conflict was still there, but at least each side felt better about it.   That’s when I realized that being fluent in a foreign culture is even more important than being fluent in a foreign language.    And, needless to say, harder to do.

So I am looking forward to Erin Meyer’s book and will take the lessons she gives on “cultural translation” to heart.   It’s a journey that is DEFINITELY worth taking, because we will all be thrown into the global cultural matrix at some point if we are working for international companies.




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