LOS Reflections – Off the Map

As someone born in Brazil of a French father and an American mother, married to a Swede and living in Mozambique now, nothing in Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map particularly surprised me.

Having to navigate cross-cultural differences is something that I’ve done my whole life. What Meyer’s book did offer though, were some clearer ideas and names to many things that I’d encountered before. Now I can call my French father time-flexible and my Swedish husband time-linear and coach them to an agreement about what it means when we agree that we are leaving on safari tomorrow morning at 8. 

We had a near melt-down the last time my parents came to visit us in Mozambique and planned to leave for the beach at 9am, only for my father to go out at 8:50 to get money from the ATM only to discover that the first ATM was out of order, the second one didn’t have bills and the third one wouldn’t accept his card. He strolled back into the apartment at 9:10 expecting to be able to have a cup of coffee before we took off only to find my husband incredibly anxious that we were already 20 minutes behind schedule because to him leaving at 9:00 means driving out of the garage at 9:00, not making your way to the elevator at 9:00 then loading up the car, getting everyone settled and doing some fancy maneuvering to get out of our narrow garage full of big cars. Intuitively, I knew that before our next outing I had to explain to my father what my husband’s definition of leaving on time is and explain to my husband that my father values relationships and processes and is willing to give them as much time as they need to come to fruition. And as Meyer often claims in her book, explaining the cultural difference ahead of time really works. 

After reading The Culture Map though, I am left wondering a few things: namely how to map cultures that aren’t highlighted in the book, if there are some cultures in which the society is (or was) highly divided and so you can’t speak of a single culture and what are the scales for humor? 

Meyer’s analysis maps 20-30 cultures (roughly those of the top 30 global economies) which is useful for many, but leaves out a lot of cultures, namely most of Africa, lots of Latin America, central Asia, many slavic countries and much of the Arab world. So how can I create my own map for , where I’m currently living? Are Mozambicans time-flexible or time-linear? Intuitively, I would assume time flexible, just because of the general unpredictability of life here, but my husband and I have both gotten calls from Mozambicans exactly at the time of an appointment wondering if we were still coming. (We were only a minute or two late and didn’t think it necessary to call.) On the other
hand, I’ve led groups with Mozambican trainers and an entirely Mozambican audience in which the participants trickled in over the course of an hour and resuming after break was a bit like herding cats. While I can easily figure out they are very hierarchical and prefer indirect negative feedback, I’m not quite sure where on the scales of communicating, persuading or trusting they are. Having a few tools to be able to conduct my analysis and map the cultures Meyer doesn’t address would be helpful. 

Perhaps because I read the book while traveling in South Africa, it occurs to me that some countries may actually have multiple cultures. Considering that South Africa is one of Africa’s largest economies, I was surprised that it didn’t appear at all in The Culture Map. I wonder if the legacy of apartheid still plays a strong role in segmenting the culture. For example, amongst the white Afrikaans, I can see trusting being more task-based (they’ll get straight to business), whereas amongst the black population it being more relationship-based (you can’t even ask for directions without beginning with “Hi, how are you?” and getting a genuine answer). Similarly, do large immigrant
groups in other countries (like north Africans in France or Mexicans in the US) have their own sub-culture, or when it comes to business do they generally adapt to the host culture? The analytical tools I long for above could also be helpful in this case. 

My third question is about humor. While I know there are whole volumes dedicated to researching humor and comparing humor across cultures, I was surprised that Meyer didn’t create a scale for humor. In my experience it is certainly something that has its cultural peculiarities and can have an impact on business. For example, I once worked with an American tax account in Sweden (although he was based in London) who made a lot of off-color, mildly racist jokes and mocked the various nationalities he’d come across while working throughout Europe. Not only did I discount all the advice he gave me, but I actively discouraged others from using his services. On the other hand, I am
currently managing a team which has a Chilean-born, Australian-raised, now-living-in-California member and a very well traveled Philippina mostly based in Barcelona. As a way of bringing a little fun and levity to our Skype meetings, I suggested that we conclude with a joke. But so far, we actually haven’t had a real joke. Instead, we’ve defaulted to stories of cultural and linguistic mishaps; something we can all relate to. 

In conclusion, for those who have had to navigate across cultures their whole lives, Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map might not offer anything surprising, but it does help name and identify phenomena that come up regularly. The countries that she maps out on her eight scales offer insights for where some of the countries that aren’t mapped might fall, but having some analytical tools would be useful. These tools could also be relevant in identifying large subcultures in divided or segmented societies. And while Meyer doesn’t include a scale for humor, she may well argue that humor is a combination of the Communicating (high context vs. low context), Time (linear vs. flexible) and Trust (relationship vs. task-oriented) scales.

That being said, her two most recurring pieces of advice are worth remembering and I have successfully put into practice. 

The first is to observe and follow the host culture’s lead. This is something my husband and I figured out for ourselves in our travels. Interestingly, our son (who is almost 2) seems to have picked up on it too. Whenever he encounters new people, he always spends at least a few minutes just watching them and figuring them out. 

Her second piece of advice which is to articulate the difference to those coming from contrasting cultures and help them come up with an agreement is not only useful in business, but also with family!

Marianne Perez de Fransius, LOS Consultant and Co-founder of Bébé Voyage

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