Book: The Culture Map

“The Culture Map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business” By Erin Meyer


“The eight scales are:
•Communicating: low-context vs. high-context
•Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
•Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first
•Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
•Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
•Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based
•Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoids confrontation
•Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time”
“The point here is that, when examining how people from different cultures relate to one another, what matters is not the absolute position of either culture on the scale but rather the relative position of the two cultures.”
“low-context communication. People from such cultures are conditioned from childhood to assume a low level of shared context—that is, few shared reference points and comparatively little implicit knowledge linking speaker and listener.”
“In low-context cultures, effective communication must be simple, clear, and explicit in order to effectively pass the message, and most communicators will obey this requirement, usually without being fully conscious of it. The United States is the lowest-context culture in the world, followed by Canada and Australia, the Netherlands and Germany, and the United Kingdom.”
“‘Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.’ This is the philosophy of low-context communication in a nutshell.”
“In a high-context culture like Iran, it’s not necessary—indeed, it’s often inappropriate—to spell out certain messages too explicitly. If Maryam replied to your first offer of food, ‘Yes, please serve me a big portion of whatever you have, because I am dying of hunger!’ this response would be considered inelegant and perhaps quite rude. Fortunately, shared assumptions learned from childhood make such bluntness unnecessary. You and Maryam both know that ‘No, thank you’ likely means, ‘Please ask me again because I am famished.'”
“The use of second-degree messages is a feature of French literature. Consider the seventeenth-century writer Jean de La Fontaine. At the first degree, he wrote simple children’s tales, but if you understand the contemporary context within which the stories were written, you may pick up his second degree of meaning—a political message for adults.”
“In France, a good business communicator will use second-degree communication in everyday life. While giving a presentation, a manager may say one thing that has an explicit meaning everyone understands. But those who have some shared context may also receive a second-degree message that is the real intended meaning.”
“The United States is the lowest-context culture in the world, and all Anglo-Saxon cultures fall on the left-hand side of the scale, with the United Kingdom as the highest-context culture of the Anglo-Saxon cluster. All the countries that speak Romance languages, including European countries like Italy, Spain, and France, and Latin American countries like Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, fall to the middle right of the scale. Brazil is the lowest-context culture in this cluster. Many African and Asian countries fall even further right. Japan has the distinction of being the highest-context culture in the world.”
“High-context cultures tend to have a long shared history. Usually they are relationship-oriented societies where networks of connections are passed on from generation to generation, generating more shared context among community members.”
“By contrast, the United States, a country with a mere few hundred years of shared history, has been shaped by enormous inflows of immigrants from various countries around the world, all with different histories, different languages, and different backgrounds. Because they had little shared context, Americans learned quickly that if they wanted to pass a message, they had to make it as explicit and clear as possible, with little room for ambiguity and misunderstanding.”
“If you’re from a low-context culture, you may perceive a high-context communicator as secretive, lacking transparency, or unable to communicate effectively.”
“On the other hand, if you’re from a high-context culture, you might perceive a low-context communicator as inappropriately stating the obvious (‘You didn’t have to say it! We all understood!’), or even as condescending and patronizing ‘You talk to us like we are children!’). “
“So when Americans make a joke, especially in a professional setting, they are likely to indicate clearly through explicit verbal or physical cues, ‘This is a joke,’ something totally unnecessary when one British person is speaking to another. In their higher-context culture, if you have to tell us it was a joke, then it wasn’t worth the breath you used to tell it.”
“So when you work with higher-context colleagues, practice listening more carefully. ‘The best advice I can give,’ Díaz says, ‘is to learn to listen to what is meant instead of what is said. This means reflecting more, asking more clarifying questions, and making an effort to be more receptive to body language cues.’ By searching for implicit cues, you can begin to ‘read the air’ a little more accurately.”
“One of the biggest mistakes lower-context managers make is assuming that the other individual is purposely omitting information or unable to communicate explicitly. Most often, the higher-context person is simply communicating in the style to which he is accustomed, with no thought of confusing or misleading you. Simply asking for clarification can work wonders.”
“With a little effort and practice, someone from a higher-context environment can learn to work and communicate in a lower-context way. Focus on recognizing when you are expecting the other person to read your intended message between the lines and get in the habit of conveying it more explicitly. Start the conversation by stating the main idea, make your points clearly, and at the end of the discussion recap what has been decided and what will happen next. If you’re not sure whether your ideas have been absorbed, then feel free to ask, ‘Am I clear enough?’ Follow up with an e-mail clarifying anything that might still be a bit vague and stating the main conclusions in writing.”
“There is just one easy strategy to remember: Multicultural teams need low-context processes.”
“The more low-context the culture, the more people have a tendency to put everything in writing.”
“By contrast, many high-context cultures—particularly those of Asia and Africa—have a strong oral tradition in which written documentation is considered less necessary. The tendency to put everything in writing, which is a mark of professionalism and transparency in a low-context culture, may suggest to high-context colleagues that you don’t trust them to follow through on their verbal commitments.”
“Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.”
“More direct cultures tend to use what linguists call upgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: ‘This is absolutely inappropriate,’ or ‘This is totally unprofessional.'”
“By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, a sentence that describes a feeling the speaker experiences strongly in terms that moderate the emotion—for example, saying ‘We are not quite there yet’ when you really mean ‘This is nowhere close to complete,’ or ‘This is just my opinion’ when you really mean ‘Anyone who considers this issue will immediately agree.'”
“American culture is in the middle of the scale; nearby are the British, who are slightly less direct with negative feedback than Americans. Latin Americans and South Americans fall to the middle right, with Argentina as one of the most direct of this cluster. Further right on the scale fall most Asian countries, with the Indians as the most direct with their criticism and the Thai, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Japanese as the least direct.
Don’t forget cultural relativity when you look at the scale. For example, the Chinese are to the right of the world scale, but they are much more direct than the Japanese, who may take offense at their forthright feedback. The continental European cultures to the left or middle often experience Americans as strikingly indirect, while Latin Americans perceive the same Americans as blunt and brutally frank in their criticism style.”
“One rule for working with cultures that are more direct than yours on the Evaluating scale: Don’t try to do it like them. Even in the countries farthest to the direct side of the Evaluating scale, it is still quite possible to be too direct.”
“The French have a saying, ‘Quand on connait sa maladie, on est à moitié guéri’—’When you know your sickness, you are halfway cured.'”
“But with the Americans, the grid is different. ‘Excellent’ is used all the time. ‘Okay’ seems to mean ‘not okay.’ ‘Good’ is only a mild compliment.”
“First, when providing an evaluation, be explicit and low-context with both positive and negative feedback. But don’t launch into the negatives until you have also explicitly stated something that you appreciate about the person or the situation. The positive comments should be honest and stated in a detailed, explicit manner.”
“Second, try, over time, to be balanced in the amount of positive and negative feedback you give. For example, if you notice something positive your colleague has done on Monday, say it there and then with explicit, open appreciation. Then, on Tuesday, when you need to severely criticize the same colleague’s disappointing proposal before it is sent to the client, your comments will be more likely to be heard and considered rather than rejected out of hand.”
“Third, frame your behavior in cultural terms. Talk about the cultural differences that explain your communication style. If possible, show appreciation for the other culture while laughing humbly at your own.”
“As this situation suggests, the first simple strategy for giving negative feedback to someone from a culture in quadrant D is Don’t give feedback to an individual in front of a group. This rule applies even if you use a lot of soft, cozy downgraders or rely on a joke to lighten the mood. And, yes, it applies to positive feedback as well. In many cultures that are less individualistic than the United States, it may be embarrassing to be singled out for positive praise in front of others. Give your individual feedback to the individual and give only group feedback to the group.”
“A second powerful tool for giving feedback to those from quadrant D—especially those from Asian cultures—is the technique of blurring the message. People from most Western cultures don’t like the idea of making a message blurry. We like our messages short, crisp, and, above all, transparent. But blurriness can be highly effective in many Asian cultures if it is used skillfully and appropriately, as I discovered early in my career.”
“The first strategy: Give the feedback slowly, over a period of time, so that it gradually sinks in. ‘In the West,’ Aini said, ‘you learn that feedback should be given right here, right now. In most Asian societies, it is best to give feedback gradually. This does not mean that you beat the direct message in periodically, again and again. Rather it means that you make small references to the changes that need to be made gently, gradually building a clear picture as to what should be done differently.'”
“This led to Aini’s second strategy: Use food and drink to blur an unpleasant message. Aini told me, ‘If I have to provide criticism to someone on my staff, I am not going to call them into my office. If I do, I know that they are going to be listening to my message with all of their senses—and any message I provide will be greatly amplified in their minds. Instead, I might invite them out to lunch. Once we are relaxed, this is a good time to give feedback. We don’t make reference to it in the office the next day or the next week, but the feedback has been passed and the receiver is now able to take action without humiliation or breaking the harmony between the two parties. In Japan, Thailand, Korea, China, or Indonesia, the same strategy applies.'”
“Aini’s third and final piece of strategy baffled me at first. She urged me: Say the good and leave out the bad.”
“A while back, one of my Indonesian colleagues sent me a set of four documents to read and review. The last two documents he must have finished in a hurry, because they were very sloppy in comparison to the first two. When he called to ask for my reaction, I told him that the first two papers were excellent. I focused on these documents only, outlining why they were so effective. I didn’t need to mention the sloppy documents, which would have been uncomfortable for both of us. He got the message clearly, and I didn’t even need to bring up the negative aspects.”
“In Germany, we try to understand the theoretical concept before adapting it to the practical situation. To understand something, we first want to analyze all of the conceptual data before coming to a conclusion. When colleagues from cultures like the U.S. or the U.K. make presentations to us, we don’t realize that they were taught to think differently from us. So when they begin by presenting conclusions and recommendations without setting up the parameters and how they got to those conclusions, it can actually shock us. We may feel insulted. Do they think we are stupid—that we will just swallow anything? Or we may question whether their decision was well thought out. This reaction is based on our deep-seated belief that you cannot come to a conclusion without first defining the parameters.”
“Principles-first reasoning (sometimes referred to as deductive reasoning) derives conclusions or facts from general principles or concepts. For example, we may start with a general principle like ‘All men are mortal.’ Then we move to a more specific example: ‘Justin Bieber is a man.’ This leads us to the conclusion, ‘Justin Bieber will, eventually, die.’ Similarly, we may start with the general principle ‘Everything made of copper conducts electricity.’ Then we show that the old statue of a leprechaun your grandmother left you is 100 percent copper. Based on these points, we can arrive at the conclusion, ‘Your grandmother’s statue will conduct electricity.’ In both examples, we started with the general principle and moved from it to a practical conclusion.”
“On the other hand, with applications-first reasoning (sometimes called inductive reasoning), general conclusions are reached based on a pattern of factual observations from the real world. For example, if you travel to my hometown in Minnesota one hundred times during January and February, and you observe every visit that the temperature is considerably below zero, you will conclude that Minnesota winters are cold (and that a winter visit to Minnesota calls for a warm coat as well as a scarf, wool hat, gloves, and ear warmers). In this case, you observe data from the real world, and, based on these empirical observations, you draw broader conclusions.”
“In general, Anglo-Saxon cultures like the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand tend to fall to the far right on the Persuading scale (see Figure 3.1), where applications-first cultures are clustered. As we move across the scale there’s a Nordic cluster, where we find Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Latin American and Germanic cultures are considerably more principles-first than the United States but much less so than their Latin European cousins, so we put them around the middle of the scale. France, Russia, and Belgium appear on the principles-first side of the scale.”
“As Da Silva learned, applications-first thinkers like to receive practical examples up front; they will extract learning from these examples. In the same vein, applications-first learners are used to the “case method,” whereby they first read a case study describing a real-life story about a business problem and its solution, and then induce general lessons from it.
Principles-first thinkers also like practical examples, but they prefer to understand the basis of the framework before they move to the application. And for anyone raised in a principles-first culture, the American case method may seem downright odd. “
“In a specific culture when managing a supplier or team member, people usually respond well to receiving very detailed and segmented information about what you expect of each of them. If you need to give instructions to a team member from a specific culture, focus on what that person needs to accomplish when. If you explain clearly what you need each person to work on, that allows them to home in effectively on their specific task.
In holistic cultures if you need to motivate, manage, or persuade someone, you will be more influential if you take the time to explain the big picture and show how all the pieces fit together. When I interviewed Jacek Malecki, an unusually big man with a friendly round face and quiet voice, he was working for Toshiba Westinghouse. He provided this example of how he had learned to manage his staff in a more holistic manner.”
“In an egalitarian culture, for example, an aura of authority is more likely to come from acting like one of the team, while in a hierarchical culture, an aura of authority tends to come from setting yourself clearly apart.”
“In countries like Jepsen’s Denmark, when the boss rides a bike to work (which is common), it may symbolize to the egalitarian Danes a strong leadership voice: ‘Look, I’m one of you.'”
” While Chinese bike to work infinitely more than Australians, among the wealthier Chinese, bikes are not an option. There are plenty of bikes on the road, but biking is for the lower classes only.”
“However, in order to understand the Confucian concept of hierarchy, it is important to think not just about the lower level person’s responsibility to obey, but also about the heavy responsibility of the higher person to protect and care for those under him. The leader’s responsibility for caring and teaching is just as strong as the follower’s responsibility to defer and follow directions. Those from Confucian societies have believed for centuries that this type of dual responsibility is the backbone of a virtuous society.”
“In more egalitarian cultures, it is often acceptable for communication to skip organizational levels.”
“If you are working with people from a hierarchical society:
•Communicate with the person at your level. If you are the boss, go through the boss with equivalent status, or get explicit permission to hop from one level to another.
•If you do e-mail someone at a lower hierarchical level than your own, copy the boss.
•If you need to approach your boss’s boss or your subordinate’s subordinate, get permission from the person at the level in between first.
•When e-mailing, address the recipient by the last name unless they have indicated otherwise—for example, by signing their e-mail to you with their first name only.
If you are working with people from an egalitarian society:
•Go directly to the source. No need to bother the boss.
•Think twice before copying the boss. Doing so could suggest to the recipient that you don’t trust them or are trying to get them in trouble.
•Skipping hierarchical levels probably won’t be a problem.
•In Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Australia, use first names when writing e-mails. This is also largely true for the United States and the United Kingdom, although regional and circumstantial differences may arise.”
“If you aren’t sure about where the culture you’re working with falls on this scale, follow the hierarchical recommendations, which are generally safer and unlikely to get you into trouble accidentally. And if you are leading a global team, with members of various cultures with different positions on the Leading scale, define team protocols up front.”
“‘In China, the boss is always right,’ says Steve Henning, reflecting on his years of managing in Beijing. ‘And even when the boss is very wrong, he is still right.'”
“Ask your team to meet without you in order to brainstorm as a group—and then to report the group’s ideas back to you. Removing “the boss” from the meeting removes their need to defer, allowing people to feel more comfortable sharing ideas.
•When you call a meeting, give clear instructions a few days beforehand about how you would like the meeting to work and what questions you plan to ask. Tell your team members explicitly that you will call on them for their input. In this way, they can show you respect by preparing and sharing their ideas. It also gives the team members time to organize their thoughts carefully and to check with one another before the meeting.
•If you are the boss, remember that your role is to chair the meeting. Don’t expect people to jump in randomly without an invitation. Instead, invite people to speak up. Even if team members have prepared well and are ready to share their ideas, they may not volunteer unless you call on them individually. When you do so, you may be surprised to see how much they have to contribute.”
“Introduce management by objectives, starting by speaking with each employee about the department’s vision for the coming year and then asking them to propose their best personal annual objectives subject to negotiation and final agreement with you. In this way, you become a facilitator rather than a supervisor while still keeping a handle on what is being accomplished.
•Make sure the objectives are concrete and specific and consider linking them to bonuses or other rewards.
•Set objectives for a twelve-month period and check on progress periodically—perhaps once a month. If progress is satisfactory, you can give your subordinate more space for self-management; if progress lags, you can get more involved.”
“While Americans perceive German organizations as hierarchical because of the fixed nature of the hierarchical structure, the formal distance between the boss and subordinate, and the very formal titles used, Germans consider American companies hierarchical because of their approach to decision making. German culture places a higher value on building consensus as part of the decision-making process, while in the United States, decision making is largely invested in the individual.”
“Rejecting the need for group agreement, the American boss says to the group, ‘This is what we are going to do,’ and most members of the team fall in line, regardless of their own opinions.”
“Most cultures that fall as egalitarian on the Leading scale also believe in consensual decision making. The Swedes, for example, are both extremely egalitarian and one of the most consensual societies in the world. The Dutch also put a strong emphasis on both egalitarian leadership style and consensual decision making. By contrast, cultures that fall as hierarchical on the Leading scale, from Morocco to Korea, are also top-down decision-making cultures.”
“The United States breaks the mold by combining an egalitarian ethos with a more top-down approach to decision making, in which one person—generally the person in charge—makes decisions quickly on behalf of the entire group. Therefore, the United States is more top-down than hierarchical. In comparison to a country like Germany or Sweden, the value is placed on one individual making a decision quickly and everyone else following. And this person tends to be the boss.”
“Wulf added, ‘we have concluded that for Americans, a ‘decision’ is simply an agreement to continue discussions. And if you are American and you understand this, it is fine. But for a German, who sees a decision as a final commitment to march forward on a plan, this can cause a lot of problems.'”
“Later, when I interviewed the American team, Larry Nicoli expressed deep frustration that the Germans seemed unable to adapt to new information: ‘It takes them weeks to make a decision, and, once it is made, they cling to it with their lives. But the world is dynamic. Things are changing. If decisions are not flexible, how can we beat the competition?'”
“In a consensual culture, the decision making may take quite a long time, since everyone is consulted. But once the decision has been made, the implementation is quite rapid, since everyone has completely bought in and the decision is fixed and inflexible—a decision with a capital D, we might say. Thus, the moment of making the decision is taken quite seriously as the pivotal point in the process.
By contrast, in a top-down culture, the decision-making responsibility is invested in an individual. In this kind of culture, decisions tend to be made quickly, early in the process, by one person (likely the boss). But each decision is also flexible—a decision with a lowercase d. As more discussions occur, new information arises, or differing opinions surface, decisions may be easily revisited or altered. So plans are subject to continual revision—which means that implementation can take quite a long time”
“But the really remarkable exception is Japan, which although strongly hierarchical is one of the most consensual societies in the world. This seemingly paradoxical pattern grows from the fact that both hierarchical systems and consensual decision making are deeply rooted in Japanese culture.”
“And he went on to explain what is called the ringi system of decision making. This is a management technique in which low-level managers discuss a new idea among themselves and come to a consensus before presenting it to managers one level higher.”
“With a longer, consensus-based decision-making process, implementation is quicker. Everyone is aware of the decision, most people agree with it, and careful planning has already taken place. When different groups or companies are involved, the long decision-making process fosters stronger and more trusting relationships. On the other hand, critics of the ringi system contend that it is time-consuming, allows individual managers to shirk accountability, and by the time the decision has been made, the race has likely been lost to those who moved more quickly. “
“If you find yourself working with a team of people who employ a more consensual decision-making process than the one you’re accustomed to, try applying the following strategies:
•Expect the decision-making process to take longer and to involve more meetings and correspondence.
•Do your best to demonstrate patience and commitment throughout the process . . . even when diverging opinions lead to seemingly interminable discussions and indecision.
•Check in with your counterparts regularly to show your commitment and be available to answer questions.
•Cultivate informal contacts within the team to help you monitor where the group is in the decision-making process. Otherwise, you may find that a consensus is forming without your awareness or participation.
•Resist the temptation to push for a quick decision. Instead, focus on the quality and completeness of the information gathered and the soundness of the reasoning process. Remember, once a decision is made, it will be difficult to try to change it.”
“On the other hand, if you are working with a group of people who favor a more top-down approach to decision making, try using these techniques:
•Expect decisions to be made by the boss with less discussion and less soliciting of opinions than you are accustomed to. The decision may be made before, during, or after a meeting, depending on the organizational culture and the individual involved.
•Be ready to follow a decision even if your input was not solicited or was overruled. It’s possible for a project to produce success even if the initial plan was not the best one that could have been devised.
•When you are in charge, solicit input and listen carefully to differing viewpoints, but strive to make decisions quickly. Otherwise you may find you are viewed as an indecisive or ineffective leader.
•When the group is divided about how to move forward and no obvious leader is present, suggest a vote. All members are expected to follow the decision supported by the majority, even if they disagree.
•Remain flexible throughout the process. Decisions are rarely set in stone; most can later be adjusted, revisited, or discussed again if necessary.”
“Finally, if you are working with a global team that includes members from both consensual and top-down cultures, you can avoid problems by explicitly discussing and agreeing upon a decision-making method during the early stages of your collaboration.”
“Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability. This is trust that comes from the head. It is often built through business interactions: We work together, you do your work well, and you demonstrate through the work that you are reliable, pleasant, consistent, intelligent, and transparent. Result: I trust you.”
“Affective trust, on the other hand, arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. This type of trust comes from the heart. We laugh together, relax together, and see each other at a personal level, so that I feel affection or empathy for you and sense that you feel the same for me. Result: I trust you.”
“The United States has ‘a long tradition of separating the practical and emotional. Mixing the two is perceived as unprofessional and risks conflict of interest.'”
“Chinese managers, on the other hand, connect the two forms of trust. As Chua puts it, ‘Among Chinese executives, there is a stronger interplay between affective and cognitive trust. Unlike Americans, Chinese managers are quite likely to develop personal ties and affective bonds when there is also a business or financial tie.’ One consequence is that, for a Chinese manager working with Americans, the culturally based preference to separate cognitive trust and personal trust can indicate a lack of sincerity or loyalty.”
“In task-based societies like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, relationships are defined by functionality and practicality. It is relatively easy to move in and out of networks, and if a business relationship proves to be unsatisfactory to either party, it’s a simple matter to close the door on that relationship and move into another.”
“By contrast, icebreaker exercises in relationship-based societies are rare. Relationships are built up slowly, founded not just on professional credibility but also on deeper emotional connections—and after the relationship is built, it is not dropped easily.”
“In peach cultures like the United States or Brazil, to name a couple, people tend to be friendly (‘soft’) with others they have just met. They smile frequently at strangers, move quickly to first-name usage, share information about themselves, and ask personal questions of those they hardly know. But after a little friendly interaction with a peach person, you may suddenly get to the hard shell of the pit where the peach protects his real self. In these cultures, friendliness does not equal friendship.”
“In coconut cultures such as these, people are more closed (like the tough shell of a coconut) with those they don’t have friendships with. They rarely smile at strangers, ask casual acquaintances personal questions, or offer personal information to those they don’t know intimately. It takes a while to get through the initial hard shell, but as you do, people will become gradually warmer and friendlier. While relationships are built up slowly, they tend to last longer.”
“As he says, ‘In the past I have often had the experience with Indian employees such that, if you don’t develop a good personal relationship with them, they will tell you everything is okay even if the entire project has gone up in flames. Once the relationship is built, loyalty and openness comes with it.'”
” As a general rule, the more relationship-based the society, the more social conversation surrounds the task. While an Australian may invest a minute or so in personal talk with a colleague, a Mexican is much more likely to spend several long minutes on the social preliminaries before getting down to business.”
“When in doubt, the best strategy may be to simply let the other person lead. Relax, put your feet up, and start the call with the idea that you might spend several long minutes just catching up before the business talk starts. And then let the other person decide when enough is enough. “
“Research suggests that the more you mimic the other person’s e-mail style, the more likely your collaborator is to respond positively to you.”
” As you may recall from our chapter on persuading, students in the French school system are taught to reason via thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, first building up one side of the argument, then the opposite side of the argument, before coming to a conclusion. Consequently, French businesspeople intuitively conduct meetings in this fashion, viewing conflict and dissonance as bringing hidden contradictions to light and stimulating fresh thinking.”
“Based on the examples we’ve seen so far, you won’t be surprised to learn that France falls on the confrontational side of the Disagreeing scale and that Japan is on the side that favors avoiding confrontation (Figure 7.1). The United States (and other Anglo-Saxon speaking countries) fall somewhere between these two extremes.”
“But emotional expressiveness is not the same thing as comfort in expressing open disagreement. In some emotionally expressive cultures, such as Spain and France, people also express disagreement openly. But in other emotionally expressive cultures, such as Peru and the Philippines, people strongly avoid open disagreement since there is a good chance it will lead to a break in the relationship.”
“We have this word in German, Sachlichkeit, which is most closely translated in English as ‘objectivity.’ With Sachlichkeit, we can separate someone’s opinions or idea from the person expressing that idea. A German debate is a demonstration of Sachlichkeit. When I say ‘I totally disagree,’ I am debating Erin’s position, not disapproving of her. Since we were children, we Germans have learned to exercise Sachlichkeit. We believe a good debate brings more ideas and information than we could ever discover without disagreement. For us, an excellent way to determine the robustness of a proposal is to challenge it.'”
“This exchange vividly illustrates why the Germans (along with the Dutch and the Danish) belong on the confrontational side of the Disagreeing scale—despite the fact that German culture is less emotionally expressive than many others.”
“By contrast, the cultures in Quadrant C, such as most Latin American cultures and some Middle Eastern cultures, are made up of people who speak with passion, yet are also sensitive and easily bruised. For people from these cultures, it is not easy to separate the opinion from the person. If you attack my idea, I feel you are attacking me also—which means I am likely to want to shy away from open disagreement lest it damage our relationship.”
“In Quadrant C cultures, emotional expression is common, but open disagreements are dangerous. In many Arabic cultures, people make extreme efforts not to offend others by expressing direct disagreement, as the ramifications for the long-term relationship could be serious.”
“First, if you’re the boss, consider skipping the meeting. Depending on the cultures you are dealing with, both your seniority and age may impact others’ comfort in disagreeing with you openly. In many avoid-confrontation cultures, it may be possible to disagree openly with a peer, but disagreeing with a boss, superior, or elder is taboo.”
“Yoshisaki suggested that Madsen avoid giving his opinion first. He also suggested that Madsen ask the team to meet without him and report back their ideas. ‘As long as the boss is present,’ Yoshisaki said,’the group will seek to find out what his opinion is and defer respectfully to him.’ This is a technique that’s worth trying whenever you find yourself managing a team whose cultural background makes it difficult for them to speak freely in your presence.'”
“A second strategy for eliciting opinions in an avoids-confrontation culture is to depersonalize disagreement by separating ideas from the people proposing them.”
“A third strategy is to conduct meetings before the meeting. “
“A.In a good meeting, a decision is made.
B.In a good meeting, various viewpoints are discussed and debated.
C.In a good meeting, a formal stamp is put on a decision that has been made before the meeting.
The large majority of Americans responding to this question chose option A. The French, however, largely chose option B. And most Chinese and Japanese selected option C. In many Asian cultures, the default purpose of a meeting is to approve a decision that has already been made in informal discussions. Therefore, the most appropriate time to express your disagreement is before the meeting to an individual rather than during the meeting in front of the group.”
“If you have a large percentage of East Asians on your global team, you may consider adopting the informal premeeting approach and encourage everyone to make one-on-one prep calls to hear opinions and reach an agreement. Then you can use your meetings to put a formal stamp on any consensus decision reached.”
“A fourth strategy for encouraging debate among those who would otherwise shun confrontation is to adjust your language, avoiding upgraders and employing downgraders (see pages 65–67 in Chapter 2) when expressing disagreement. As you recall, an upgrader is a word that makes an opinion sound stronger, such as ‘absolutely,’ ‘totally,’ or ‘completely.’ Such words are popular in confrontational cultures. By contrast, in confrontation-avoiding cultures, people are more likely to use downgraders such as ‘sort of,’ ‘kind of,’ ‘slightly,’ or ‘partially.'”
“On the other hand, if you are working with a culture that is more confrontational than your own, be very careful about choosing stronger words than are natural to you to express your disagreement unless you have a solid and nuanced grasp on exactly where the line is drawn between acceptable debate and inappropriate attack. I do not recommend that you begin an overseas meeting by telling your French client, ‘You are totally wrong,’ or announcing to your German supplier, ‘I am in absolute disagreement with your proposal.’ In these cultures, disagreement is expressed more directly than in some others, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. It’s easy to overshoot on the Disagreeing scale.”
“I learned a very simple trick, perhaps obvious to someone who is British or American but not a bit obvious to me. Before expressing disagreement, I now always explain, ‘Let me play devil’s advocate, so we can explore both sides.’ Most groups seem happy to do this, as long as I am clear about what I am doing and why I am doing it.”
“M-time cultures view time as tangible and concrete: ‘We speak of time as being saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, crawling, killing and running out. These metaphors must be taken seriously. M-time scheduling is used as a classification system that orders life. These rules apply to everything except death.'”
“By contrast, P-time cultures take a flexible approach to time, involvement of people, and completion of transactions: ‘Appointments are not taken seriously and, as a consequence, are frequently broken as it is more likely to be considered a point rather than a ribbon in the road. . . . An Arab will say ‘I will see you before one hour’ or ‘I will see you after two days.’’ In other words, a person who lives in P-time will suggest a general approximate meeting slot in the coming future without nailing down the exact moment that meeting will take place.”
“If you live in Germany, you probably find that things pretty much go according to plan. Trains are reliable; traffic is manageable; systems are dependable; government rules are clear and enforced more or less consistently. You can probably schedule your entire year on the assumption that your environment is not likely to interfere greatly with your plans.”
“As usual, all positions on the scale should be considered in relative terms. Germans may complain bitterly about the British lack of punctuality, and Indians often feel the French are rigid with their scheduling. However, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and Northern European countries generally fall on the linear-time side of the scale. Latin cultures (both Latin European and Latin American) tend to fall on the flexible-time side, with Middle Eastern and many African cultures on the far right. Asian cultures are scattered on this scale. Japan is linear-time, but China and (especially) India practice flexible-time.”
“By contrast, before traveling to India several students had explained to me the ‘evergreen tree culture’ of waiting one’s turn. When it is necessary for a line to form, for example when waiting to purchase a ticket, some eager individuals will form the initial trunk of a tree. Then, when the trunk begins to look too long to some, a few individuals will create their own lines by standing next to, say, the fifth person in the trunk and implicitly suggesting that others line up behind them. This process continues until you have a human evergreen tree, a single-file trunk of people waiting with restless branches sprouting and growing on both sides.”
“What’s more, in a linear-time culture, people in a meeting are supposed to behave as if in a Swedish line. You should not be talking to your neighbor at the same time someone else is talking. You should not be taking cell phone calls on the sidelines. The group will take scheduled ‘bio breaks,’ so please don’t leave and re-enter the room. For those on linear time, any behavior that distracts from the predefined task at hand is just plain rude.”
“In flexible-time cultures, it seems clear that the most productive meetings grow in unpredictable ways, and the effective manager is flexible and professional enough to capitalize on priorities and changing needs as they arise. Interruptions, agenda changes, and frequent shifts in direction are seen as natural and necessary.”
“Although I worked hard during my career on becoming more culturally agile, I have learned that, if you try adapting your style, three times out of five you will miss the mark on the first try.”
“Style switching sounds very simple, but it takes a lot of trial and error to understand the subtleties and to get them right. You have to try, miss the mark, try again, and gradually find you are becoming more and more competent.”
“The Japanese are highly organized planners. They are definitely more organized than they are flexible. In China, everything happens immediately, without preplanning. The Chinese are the kings of flexibility. This is a culture where people don’t think about tomorrow or next week; they think about right now.”
“Once you understand that the Chinese are extremely flexible, everything works fine if you just do the same.”
“Sometimes cultural diversity on global teams creates fault lines, but other times that same level of diversity can be a great advantage. For example, suppose you are handed a project that has dozens of drop-dead deadlines and that therefore requires a linear-time approach. Get those people on your team with strong linear-time preferences to own that project. Another time you may have a client who is constantly changing his mind and serving him well requires flexibility and comfort with changing routes at the drop of a hat. Having team members who are strongly flexible-time (both because of their culture as well as their personalities) will help meet your client’s needs.”

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