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The Culture Map: Breaking Through The Invisible Boundaries Of Global Business – Eterna’s Book Club

In 1994, a Vietnamese Coca Cola billboard advertisement read ‘It’s so nice to see you again’, addressing the political moment upon its return after the Vietnamese War.    

Using distinct adverts and campaigns to cater to different cultural audiences, Coca Cola has long adapted its branding to its cultural surroundings. Whether the soda drinkers are health-conscious athletes, corporates needing some fuel, or truck drivers on a lengthy commute, it continues to speak to consumers across different geographies.   

Coca Cola has long placed intercultural awareness at the forefront of business, running training programmes to ensure its employees can communicate with one another, and their consumers, worldwide. Alongside companies like Accenture and IBM, it has frequently been recognised for its Cross-Cultural Management strategies, which are considered critical to its success.    

These corporate giants regionally defined branding may seem seamless, but in reality, it builds on a complex set of cross-cultural conversations. It is these discussions and a desire to understand how cultural differences affect communication strategy, that has spurred Eterna’s latest book club read:  

The Culture Map – by Erin Meyer (2014)  

As a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management, Meyer fills  her book with rich real-life anecdotes and case studies. She draws on a range of scenarios from her experiences working at the World Bank, United Nations, Google, Sinpec, BNP Paribas and KPMG. Using a framework consisting of eight scales representing key cultural dimensions, she measures each nation relative to another. The idea is, by understanding where a culture sits on each scale, individuals and organisations can develop a greater awareness of cultural differences and adjust their behaviour accordingly.    

She evaluates communication and feedback styles, persuasion tactics, approaches to hierarchy, decision-making processes, attitudes towards time and confrontation, and the varying emphases placed on a work/life balance. Yet, if we are to take any key points from her, it would be the importance of ‘holding back’ at first: “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less.”    

Brimming with practical strategies aimed at bridging culture gaps, she alerts us that empathy, flexibility, and adaptability are the most important ingredients to achieve successful cross-cultural working relationships.      

Eterna’s View  

A book perhaps most suitable for HR Managers, The Culture Map, for the most part, is of its time. Meyer focuses her case studies on American, European, and Asian cultures, largely overlooking Africa as a region for discussion. Written in 2014 at the height of globalisation and at a time of a notable shift towards political and economic investment in Asia from Western powers, The Culture Map is unsurprisingly focussed on the importance of US/China relations. Her map largely centres on an East/West divide, falling into geographical divisions in a Cold War-like fashion. Yet, recent political earthquakes such as Brexit, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a vote of Scottish independence reveal a starkly different picture. An anti-globalisation agenda has emerged whereby nations are increasingly focused on redefining their own cultural identity thus making Meyer’s pro-globalisation standpoint outdated. 

Meyer often undermines her goals of bettering intercultural relationships. Indeed, in her attempts to construct the map clearly, she over-emphasises distinctions between cultural identities. 21st century culture is no longer solely defined by geographical boundaries, and Meyer fails to account for this. Online echo chambers and influencers gaining mass followings are the new places to look for cultural identity: perhaps a culture ‘network’, rather than a culture ‘map’ is necessary in 2023.     

Although Meyer’s eight scales do carry weight, her model needs updating in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. It does not consider the impact the pandemic has had on businesses and culture. Hybrid working has become a norm and business air travel numbers have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Technology has played a greater role in business communication, whether that be conducting a meeting via Zoom or attending a conference in the form of a webinar. Through technology, global business interactions have homogenised to an extent, and thus tech can be seen as a bridge simplifying interaction between different cultures.  

Despite being based purely on the author’s experiences alone, The Culture Map is a solid read for anyone working in communications, providing an insight into the sensitivities required to optimise business relations across cultures. Whilst her geographic focus and emphasis on cultural distinctions may be outdated, her core points still stand:    

  1. Being a good observer is sometimes more important than being a good speaker     
  1. Be careful with your feedback; it can be offensive    
  1. Paying attention to how others convey ideas will help you be more convincing     
  1. To be a successful leader, you must learn to adapt your style     
  1. Understanding different decision-making processes is vital to implementing ideas     
  1. Trust is built differently in different cultures, but it’s important to all of us    
  1. There’s a proper way to disagree  
  1. Schedules should be made according to a culture’s perception of time.