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APR 4, 2017

Eight Scales for Understanding Cultures

By Megumi Taoka
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GLOBIS University lecturer Megumi Taoka supervised the Japanese translation of Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. The article below is based on talk she gave on October 19, 2015 for Eiji Press and Academy Hills in Tokyo.

Why did you choose this particular book?

In 2014, I was leading a small team developing a new GLOBIS course entitled Cross Cultural Management. Most cross-cultural seminars and training programs focus on communication tips—how deeply one should bow when meeting people, or how direct one could be in e-mails in a particular country, etc.

What we aimed to achieve through the new course, however, was beyond communication tips. We wanted to have students debate how to be an effective leader while working overseas and/or with people of different nationalities. In the course, we touch on the cultures of India, Bahrain, China, the United States, and Japan using case studies. As we put the course together, we were looking for a book that allowed students to pursue deeper debate through both concepts and concrete business situations.

As it turned out, Professor Meyer had just authored The Culture Map that year in May. By chance, one of the team members had taken a course with Professor Meyer at INSEAD in France. After ordering her book, we quickly realized we should put it to use as soon as possible—but there was no Japanese version.

We approached Eiji Press for a translation, and the book got published August 22 a year later. We are already entering a second printing, thanks to the great demand among Japanese businesspeople.

The Culture Map (Japanese translation)

What are the 8 scales for visualizing culture?

The first feature of this book is that it describes business situations from a cultural perspective. I’m sure that you have experience with various cultures through relationships with friends or others, but a book that focuses on culture in the context of business is in fact not so easy to find.

One of the signature books of this field is Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, by Geert Hofstede, one of the greats of comparative culture studies. But in the twenty years since his book, the field has not seen a major update, so it was great to see a new business book focused on culture the way Meyer’s does.

One of the key aspects of The Culture Map is that it is designed so that a businessperson can make immediate use of it. The Culture Map uses intuitive scales for visualizing how cultural difference emerges in people’s actions in typical business scenarios. There are 8 of them.

1. Communicating: Low-context vs. High-context
Low-context: Good communication is precise, simple, and clear. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. 
High-context: Good communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Messages are both spoken and read between the lines.

2. Evaluating: Direct feedback vs. Indirect feedback 
Direct feedback: Negative feedback is provided frankly, bluntly, and honestly without being softened by positive feedback. 
Indirect feedback: Negative feedback is provided softly, subtly, and diplomatically while given within positive feedback.

3. Persuading: Application-first vs. Principle-first
Application-first: Individuals are trained to begin with a fact, statement, or opinion before adding concepts to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary.
Principle-first: Individuals are trained to first develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement, or opinion.

4. Leading: Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical
Egalitarian: The best boss is a facilitator among equals. Organizational structure is flat.
Hierarchical: The best boss is a strong director who leads from the front. Organizational structure is multilayered and fixed.

5. Deciding: Consensual vs. Top-down
Consensual: Decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement. 
Top-down: Decisions are made by individuals (usually the boss). 

6. Trusting: Task-based vs. Relationship-based
Task-based: “You do good work consistently” means “You are reliable.” “I enjoy working with you” means “I trust you.”
Relationship-based: “I’ve seen who you are at a deep level, I’ve shared personal time with you over meals and drinks, and I know others well who trust you” means “I trust you.”

7. Disagreeing: Confrontational vs. Avoid confrontation
Confrontational: Disagreement and debate are positive for the team or organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.
Avoids confrontation: Disagreement and debate are negative for the team or organization. Open confrontation is inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship.

8. Scheduling: Linear-time vs. Flexible-time
Linear-time: Focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule. Emphasis is on promptness and good organization. 
Flexible-time: Tasks can be changed as opportunities arise. Many things can be dealt with at once, and interruptions are acceptable.

The book explains how these 8 scales apply to each country and in which context. This allows you to roughly benchmark your country’s position relative to others when doing business in an international context. It goes without saying, of course, that there are always individual differences from person to person, so these benchmarks are not universal.

The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer

What value does this book have for Japanese business today?

In the Cross Cultural Management course, we talk about “cultural intelligence,” which is composed of three elements: cultural knowledge, awareness, and skills to adjust one’s actions and behaviors according to different cultural contexts.

These three are distinctly different abilities. Knowing key cultural facts and issues is one thing, while the ability to translate such knowledge into appropriate actions and behaviors is another.

The Culture Map is extremely useful in building overall cultural knowledge and understanding, as things can only begin from this first step. Professor Meyer goes on to give specific suggestions of how to engage with other cultures, so the book is full of hints on how to put theory into practice.

On the other hand, how much we relate to what this book explains may vary depending on each individual’s level of exposure to diverse cultural contexts.

When debating in the Cross Cultural Management course taught in Japanese, the majority of responses tends to be very subdued and distanced. It’s common to hear, “I see, that may be one way of looking at it.” However, in the same class taught in English, even Japanese participants tend to show stronger opinions and clearer disagreements to match their international peers. There is a higher level of awareness and skill to express themselves in a non-Japanese context. These abilities were surely built through actual experiences dealing with different cultures. The development of cultural awareness and skills to adjust actions and behaviors requires substantial hands-on cultural experience, as well as diligent studies using good referencesーsuch as this book.