Updated: Jun 6, 2021
In the first few lessons of my 1:1 coaching program, I make a point to discuss cultural differences using Erin Meyers book The Culture Map and the 8 Scales that reveal everything you should know about different cultures. Erin Meyer suggests that knowing these scales can improve relationships with international colleagues, and I believe it will also help you feel more confident with your English.
It can help you to see why and how miscommunications might not necessarily be all about what you think you're doing wrong rather it has more to do with our cultural tendencies.
Many of my students question themselves because they have doubts about the meaning behind some of the language they need to use. They don't always know what is and what isn't acceptable and how you might say something in a more natural way without coming across as rude.
After I read this book, I knew how essential the key points from this book could be for learners of English from all over the world. Learning a language is not just about learning the rules and more vocabulary. It's about understanding the subtleties of the language and why certain cultures do certain things.
Cultural differences in architecture and design
Erin Meyer introduced the idea of cultural mapping, which built on the work of many in her field including Edward T Hall American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher. He wrote extensively in his book The Hidden Dimension about how cultural differences are evident in urban spaces and how differences among them affect modern society. He discusses how our use of space can affect personal business relations, cross-cultural exchanges, architecture, city planning, and urban renewal.
Why is it important to know all this?
People can say one thing, but they actually mean another! For example, when I left my home in Australian to live in the UK for a year, I even had a hard time deciding what they REALLY meant, and English is my native language.
I felt strange when people said to me ’You alright?’ ’Yeah, I'm fine, why do I look unwell?’ I would respond.
Imagine being in a meeting with your client in the UK and after you present your design concept they say to you "I only have a few minor comments" or "It's quite good, but I was wondering if I could maybe suggest a few things."
You might understand this as being okay and that you've done a good job. However, to some cultures (the UK for example) this could be a polite way of delivering negative feedback.
The table below is a great example of this phenomenon:
How on earth can you know that ’very interesting’ & ‘quite good’ REALLY means it's terrible?
Imagine also trying to give negative feedback to a culture where it's impolite to give feedback so directly. It can potentially damage and ruin working collaborations. Understanding more about how different cultures use language will help you to decode the language but also understand how you can avoid misunderstandings and miscommunications.
In the Culture Map, Erin drew up a culture map based on a situation where a company was not bridging the gaps between colleagues from high and low context cultures, but rather between Japanese and Chinese colleagues. The map serves to highlight why simply placing countries according to high and low context can lead to ineffectiveness and communication breakdowns.
What are the ‘8 Scales’?
The ‘8 Scales’ are exactly as they sound. They are eight scales that can be used together to better understand how culture works and are based on decades of extensive academic research. These are as follows:
1. Communicating: explicit vs. implicit
This refers to how much cultural knowledge is needed to communicate effectively.
Some cultures are explicit (low context) which means that more is taken on face value and cultural knowledge isn’t needed. They tell you exactly what they mean.
Implicit (high context), on the other hand, is sophisticated and layered, and listeners are often expected to read between the lines to understand the full meaning.
Americans and Australians are amongst the most explicit or low-context cultures there is (low-context meaning their conversation assumes relatively little intuitive understanding). This is not surprising for countries composed of a number of immigrants. We try to explain things simply and explicitly because we assume that not everyone has the same cultural understandings.
In contrast, cultures like Japan and Thailand have more nuances and messages are read between the lines. If you read between the lines, you understand what someone really means, or what is really happening in a situation, even though it is not said openly.
Thus Americans in Japan should pay attention to what's not being said; while Japanese in America should brace themselves for explicit language.
Examples: in America professionals from High Context cultures should brace themselves for direct language and less reading between the lines.
2. Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
Some cultures are more direct than others when giving negative feedback. This includes the Dutch, Germans, Israelis, Russians and French. Others prefer to be more subtle and give negative feedback in an indirect way. This includes Japan, Thailand and Indonesia. Cultures such as the US, UK, Canada and Australia fall around the middle of the spectrum (although, as you saw earlier, there are some differences!) This was one of the biggest differences I noticed when moving to France, however, since I've become more used to it I've learnt not to take it too personally. This is why it can be particularly important to understand how to be more diplomatic when speaking in English speaking countries and again also why I focus on this in my coaching programs.
3. Persuading: deductive vs. inductive
Different cultures have different strategies when it comes to presenting a fact, stating an opinion or persuading another person. Countries such as the UK, US, Canada and Australia tend to start with a fact then back up that fact with additional information. In contrast, countries such as Italy, France, Spain and Russia tend to do the opposite and start with the theory before building to a conclusion. Knowing this can be vital when giving engaging presentations. In more explicit and applications first cultures the presentation structure tends to follow a similar pattern:
Explain what you'll talk about
Talk about it with lots of signposting language
Summarise what was said Give the audience a takeaway point
4. Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
When it comes to hierarchy, countries like Japan, Nigeria and India value status and their organisational structures are highly layered and complex. In countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Australia, there is less of a separation between the boss and their employees.
5. Deciding: consensual vs. top-down
Another interesting difference between cultures centres around how decisions are made. Countries like Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands tend to work towards a general agreement before making a decision. In Nigeria, China and India, decisions are generally made by business directors or someone with authority in a ‘top-down’ arrangement.
6. Trusting: task vs. relationship
Trust can also be built in different ways across different cultures. For example, in some cultures such as the US, Australia and the Netherlands, trust in business is built through business activities and how reliable and successful you are. However, in places in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and China, trust is built through the relationship you share and how long you’ve known each other.
7. Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
When countries like Israel, France and Germany disagree, they tend to appreciate open confrontation and believe that it won’t impact the relationship. However, in Indonesia, Japan and Thailand, this would be inappropriate and would harm the business and the team.
8. Scheduling: structured vs. flexible
Even the way that projects are completed can depend on the culture. For example, in Germany, Switzerland and Japan, tasks are expected to be completed in a sequence, one thing at a time, without interruptions, whereas in Kenya, India and Saudi Arabia, flexibility, adaptability would be valued more highly.
Use Erin Meyer’s Country Mapping tool to map your own culture against the culture you’re living in.
Then use the Personal Profile tool to learn more about your own personal tendencies. You’ll be surprised what you find out about your own personal tendencies and your culture - I certainly was.
Now that you know all this what exactly can you do with the information? How can you be better at understanding?
I think it's important you have someone you trust who can be a mentor, coach or confident with who you can ask questions if you have doubts and discuss some of the nuances you're not entirely sure about.