Whether you are negotiating with Swedes or setting a production schedule in Brazil, understanding subtle communication cues is critical. With that in mind, Erin Meyer has written The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. Access connected with Meyer, a professor at INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France, to discuss some concepts from the best-selling book.
ACCESS: You write about the term “cultural relativity” in your book. How does that work?
ERIN MEYER: A while ago I worked with a global team made up of French and Americans. The Americans would complain that the French were late and disorganized and chaotic. Later, a group from India joined the team. The Indians would complain that the French were rigid and so focused on punctuality that they weren’t able to adapt as things changed. On a scale from linear time to flexible time, France falls between the U.S. and India, leading to these opposite perceptions. In today’s global economy where many cultures may be collaborating on one team, we need to move beyond describing what a culture is like to understanding how to cultures perceive one another based on their relative differences.
ACCESS: Which is more important — business culture or national culture?
EM: In a local company, organizational culture is more important, but in a global company national cultural differences are stronger. Subtle differences in communication patterns and complex variations of what is considered good business from one country to another have a tremendous impact on how we understand each other. Many of these differences, such as when best to speak or stay quiet, the role of the leader, and the most constructive types of negative feedback, may seem small. But if they’re not understood, they can lead to ineffective teams, demotivated employees and a frustrated workforce.
ACCESS: Should a corporate culture be imposed globally?
EM: There are some benefits to that. One is efficiency — a worldwide corporate culture can help people understand each other and find a common platform for their collaboration. But this approach can be less effective when it comes to working with local clients. If your corporate culture emphasizes direct communication, you might then hire the most direct Thai person you could find, only to recognize that he or she comes off as insulting or arrogant to your Thai clients. If you hired that one Saudi who will challenge the authority figure in the room, that’s great inside your egalitarian company, but it might not play out well among Saudi clients or suppliers. So you need to consider when your overall goal is internal efficiency and when it is client contact.
ACCESS: What advice do you give individuals working internationally?
EM: Seek to understand how your culture is seen by other cultures. Recognize your own cultural biases. If you get in the habit of always being curious and humble, trying to ask questions and learning as much about the culture as possible, you can adapt your style and considerably improve your effectiveness.
ACCESS: How is technology affecting cross-cultural communication?
EM: Misunderstandings are more likely when working at a distance. In the U.S., for example, we put a strong value on clarity and tend to recap verbal decisions in writing. An Indonesian client told me that in his culture when people make decisions verbally, that is enough. If you get off the phone and recap everything in an e-mail, that would be a sign to the Indonesian that you don’t trust him. So, if you are from the U.S., and you do a recap in the name of clarity, you may never realize how your culture has guided you. All you know is that this person no longer wants to work with you.
ACCESS: What is the toughest cross-cultural assignment for people from the U.S.?
EM: Some research suggests that the highest expatriate failure rate is with Americans moving to the U.K. Cultural differences are more difficult when they are invisible. Say an American is working in China, and the Chinese behave in a way he or she thinks is strange. The person is more likely to think, Oh, that must be cultural, and to be more flexible and work to understand the culture. If a British person behaves “strangely,” the American may be more likely to think the person is incompetent instead of attributing it to cultural differences. Just because we speak the same language does not mean that culture will not have an impact.
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