Deconstructing cultural divides

Talking about cultures is difficult: a culture has many facets, so where to begin analysing it? A good start would be breaking down a culture into eight dimensions as identified by Erin Meyer in her book The Culture Map.

Meyer (a professor at INSEAD) is a good, methodical writer, and there is much to learn from reading her book — plus, it’s a very amusing read, as she recounts many anecdotes from her professional life. In this post, I want to review the eight dimensions Meyer has identified and offer my own perspective on them — especially as they relate to the workplace. These are:

Communicating: low- vs high-context cultures

In Meyer’s terms, British culture is more high-context than American: its members rely on shared memes, behaviours and frames of reference when communicating, and they expect their interlocutors to pick up on subtle cues, so that they do not need to spell everything out. Yet, Britons themselves are very low-context in comparison to other cultures — especially Asian ones:

It is true that some cultures are more explicit than others, but I think most people overplay such differences. The most notable example of this is Malcolm Gladwell’s take on Korea Air’s 1997 plane crash: as he said in an interview,”the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.”

Gladwell’s thesis, as outlined in his book Outliers, is that the high-context nature of Korean culture and language makes Korean pilots more likely to crash planes: Koreans, he writes, are more deferential to authority and tend to rely on suggestion and subtle cues instead of direct communication, especially when talking to superiors. As a result, a flight officer or engineer will not directly challenge the captain, even if he notices something’s wrong — instead, he will try to indirectly communicate his unease, by making statements such as “it’s raining heavily” or “the radar is useful”, meaning (according to Gladwell) “you have no visibility, do not attempt to land the plane using your eyes only” and “look at the radar, use that instead” respectively.

The problem with this thesis is that it is totally wrong, as a Korean blogger has shown. It exaggerates cultural differences between Korean and American pilots, and it downright misrepresents what actually went down in the ’97 crash (for example, Gladwell suggests that if Korean pilots were forced to communicate in English, the number of crashes would be reduced; but the pilots in the ’97 crash did actually use English a lot of the time). As the blogger notes, this inclination to interpret individual humans’ actions based on culture is overly simplistic, distracts from fully understanding an issue, and destroys individual agency.

Consider the following real dialogue that Meyer provides as an example of cultural misunderstanding:

A: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.
B: I see.
A: Can you join us on Sunday?
B: Yes, I think so.
A: That would be a great help.
B: Yes, Sunday is an important day.
A: In what way?
B: It is my daughter’s birthday.
A: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it.
B: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding.

A walked away from this conversation thinking that B would come in on Sunday; B thought that A had let him off the hook. It’s true that B never explicitly stated he doesn’t want to come in, and we can put this down to culture. But, in my opinion, the misunderstanding here is not due to culture, but due to the fact that mainly A, but also to a lesser extent B, are just bad communicators:

A: It looks like some of us are going to have to be here on Sunday to host the client visit.
B: I see.
A: Can you join us on Sunday?
B: Yes, I think so. → Explicitly saying “yes” when you mean “no” is bad form. If B had led with “well, Sunday is an important day”, fine; but he did not — there are no cues here, no subtlety, there is a direct “yes”.
A: That would be a great help.
B: Yes, Sunday is an important day.
A: In what way?
B: It is my daughter’s birthday.
A: How nice. I hope you all enjoy it. → What on earth does A mean by this? He is asking B to come in and work — but “I hope you all…” implies that B will be with his family. Bad, ambiguous communication, not cultural misunderstanding!
B: Thank you. I appreciate your understanding. → How can A fail to pick up the significance of “I appreciate your understanding”? What understanding has he shown? What does he think B is thanking him for? His obliviousness to this is due to bad listening skills, regardless of culture.

Still, it’s undoubtedly a fact that some cultures are indeed more explicit than others, and that cultural misunderstandings can occur, even if people are good listeners. That’s why Meyer is right in saying we should all be aware of cultural differences: people from low-context cultures should be extra vigilant so as to pick up subtle cues from people from high-context cultures; on the other hand, the latter should not try and find hidden meaning in explicit statements from people from low-context cultures.

Even so though, it is unrealistic to expect a Cincinnati-based manager to understand Japenese or Korean culture well enough to pick up on cues based on native speakers’ shared worldview and history. So, as Meyer suggests, multinational organisations should train all their employees in using low-context, explicit language, to avoid misunderstandings.

(That said, I can absolutely understand why people from high-context cultures might find this difficult: most Europeans I know often dismiss Americans as unsophisticated and unrefined due to their explicitness and inability to process sarcasm; imagine then how westerners must come across to the even more high-context cultures.

(Interestingly though, exactly because high-context languages rely on shared culture, people from one high-context culture may totally fail to pick up cues even from a lower-context culture than theirs; I have a Chinese friend who finds the British way too indirect, for instance — even though her culture is supposed to be more high-context.))

Evaluating: direct vs indirect

This is partly because the French have nihilistic philosophy in their DNA and partly because they are more explicit in their feedback than Americans, who are, however, more explicit than the Brits:

Cultures on the left side of the scale call it like it is: you do something wrong, they will let you know. Sides on the right will find a round-about way of giving negative feedback. For example, Americans will rarely tell you that you suck at something — they will talk about your “opportunity areas”, and only after they have identified at least three “strengths”. The English have a different strategy: they have developed a special vocabulary for giving negative feedback:

(As a result, the English are not perceived as uncool by the French: they may be more indirect, but they do it with more finesse than the Americans (or rather, they are perceived as uncool, but for different reasons).)

You can see the problem here: if you have never worked with English people before, you may walk out of a feedback session with your British boss thinking that he is in total agreement with your interesting ideas, and that any flaws in your work were due to his interference — when in fact, from his perspective, he just gave you a pretty severe dressing down. Misunderstandings are exacerbated by the fact that people from some cultures, such as the American, have a reputation for being very explicit in their communication, as the scale in the previous section shows; so, their interlocutors expect them to be the same way when evaluating things, and therefore fail to pick up on the more subtle feedback.

This is a difficult problem to crack. It is just as difficult to learn to interpret another person’s feedback as it is for a person to learn to change the way they deliver it. In addition, as Meyer notes, it is easy to accidentally go too far: an American who reads all this may well decide to give being more direct a try, but end up coming across as rude to a French person.

According to Meyer, the solution to preventing misunderstandings here is common sense: remember not to take it for granted that your interlocutor has understood your feedback, and do not try to hard to adapt to the local style of giving feedback unless you understand it perfectly, because it is easy to overdo it.

My own observation is that style is one thing, substance another: the former doesn’t matter if the very criticism you are offering is not helpful. For example, one of my managers once justly criticised me for handling a situation badly. I listened, and learnt from this, and (I believe I) improved in that area. Three months later, my manager gave me the exact same feedback — by referencing the mistake I made the first time. I thought that this was unfair: if I had not made progress, she should have referenced a new situation in which I showed the same failing. If there were no new mistakes in that area, why was I receiving the same feedback? No matter how subtly or directly she had given me the feedback, I would not have taken it well, given that it was not well-thought out.

Persuading: concept- vs applications-first

Meyer calls what I tried to do “concept-first persuading”, and what my boss was asking me to do “applications-first persuading”. It is very important to know how different cultures rank in this scale, because getting things wrong will render your arguments totally useless.

As the table shows, a concept-first audience demands that a person making an argument explains his approach and methodology before presenting conclusions and recommendations. For example, if you were to give a presentation to German managers, you should begin by explaining how you did your analysis; once you have convinced them that your approach is sound, you can present your results. Having accepted your methodology, they are more likely to approve of your conclusions. In contrast, a group of American managers will soon get impatient and accuse you of philosophising if you waste their time with a lecture on your approach.

For me, this section was the most illuminating one in the book — I had not realised there are cultural preferences in this area. As a result, I have got this wrong both ways in the past. There have been occasions when I gave an application-first presentation to a concept-first audience: I dove straight into my recommendations, only to be cut short minutes after I started speaking with questions of “how did you get that?” and “did you also consider x/y/z in your analysis” — which totally derailed my planned presentation. There have also been times when I started talking about how I approached a particular analysis to be interrupted with “why are we wasting time talking about how you modeled x/y/z? Cut to the chase”. I might have been able to avoid such issues, had I known about this cultural divide.

Of course, what complicates things is that many of us work in multi-cultural environments — our audiences may well include both Americans and Russians… what do we do then? Meyer doesn’t offer much advice here. My own approach so far has been structuring my presentations in such a way that I can easily change track if the meeting starts getting derailed — e.g. by having an appendix with my methodology at hand, or a section with bullet-point recommendations to which I can easily skip if needed. In the future, I think I might also try adapting my presentations to the culture of my audience’s majority (or to the culture of the key decision maker), and see how that goes.

Meyer notes that the scale above does not show Asian cultures. This is because Asians, according to her, take an altogether different approach to persuading, which she calls “holistic thinking”. She describes this as a pattern whereby people talk about peripheral information, which they slowly synthesise into one big picture. She cites some interesting studies corroborating her thesis — for example, when American and Japanese subjects were asked to describe pictures or videos of aquatic life, the Americans started by talking about the fish they spotted, whereas the Japanese started by describing the background. Similarly, when asked to take pictures of individuals, Americans took close-up portraits, whereas the Japanese zoomed out to take full-body pictures of the subject in her environment.

I am not 100% clear on how this is different to a concept-first preference — after all, looking at the big picture is basically taking a particularly broad theoretical approach to things. According to Meyer, it’s interesting knowing about it, because it has implications for managing people from such cultures. She reports cases of managers who were used to western cultures, where they’d allocate specific tasks to individuals in their teams, and expect them to accomplish them. But in holistic cultures, employees want to know how their work fits in the bigger picture, so to motivate them, managers should explain how each person’s work is relevant in the bigger scheme.

I must say that my personal experience does not really support this. What I have seen is that in every culture, good managers understand (and want to know) how their work fits in the big picture, and poor managers focus on their little silo, without really caring how their work affects that of others. For example, one of the things I have worked on in the past is minimising the cost of our products. What I noticed is that many of our chemists or engineers were brilliant at finding technical solutions to technical problems, but not very good at understanding how their work affected the consumers. Suppose you asked them for options to reduce the cost of promotional SKUs. They could easily give a list of different materials you can use, and explain how using a different material would lower the cost, but it would not occur to them to calculate the total cost of promotional SKUs and ask marketing whether these SKUs are really needed — for instance, do we really need to physically bundle two products together, or can we run a buy 1 — get 1 free promotion?

Perhaps some cultures really are more inclined to see the big picture; but I really think that this is more a function of an individual’s intelligence, ability to synthesise information, and perhaps most importantly, curiosity, than of a person’s cultural background.

Leading: egalitarian vs hierarchical

In egalitarian cultures, it’s okay for subordinates to openly disagree with their managers, to take initiative without approval or to e-mail people far higher in the management chain; in contrast, in hierarchical cultures, subordinates are more likely to defer to their managers’ opinions, and one simply does not message someone two levels above them directly.

Per Meyer, egalitarian managers leading a team from a hierarchical society may run into big problems in this dimension: they may think that their reportees lack initiative or confidence, because they will not generally to do things on their own and will not speak up in meetings; on the flip side, egalitarian managers themselves may be perceived as incompetent and incapable of setting direction by their reportees.

Meyer has a few suggestions for leading teams from hierarchical cultures: a) asking your team members to meet without you to brainstorm, and share back with you the team’s ideas — removing yourself from the meeting will make team members more comfortable to voice their views; b) telling your subordinates in advance that you will ask for their inputs in a meeting, so they have the right expectations and time to prepare; and c) when chairing a meeting, do not expect people to jump in — invite people to share their views.

In addition, Meyer says that symbolism may matter more in hierarchical structures — for instance, she recounts the story of a senior manager working in China who found out his reportees felt slighted because he biked to work: at that time, it was considered low-class to cycle instead of driving or even taking public transport, and the person’s subordinates felt that their manager was not signalling his high status, which in turn reflected badly on his team.

My own experience corroborates the scale above, but, perhaps because P&G only hires at the entry level, promotes from within, and has quite multicultural offices, thus creating a very strong and fairly uniform culture, I have not witnessed dramatic differences when working from colleagues from different countries. Sure, the Chinese managers are more likely to be deferential to their superiors, but it’s not like they will not speak up at meetings — and my subordinates do not seem to mind my taking the underground instead of hiring a driver.

Deciding: consensual vs top-down decision making

Meyer recounts the story of a merger between an American and a German company, which quickly ran into difficulties. Amusingly, each side accused the other of being overly hierarchical. An American remembers being told off by the Germans for scheduling lunch with someone beneath them in the hierarchy — thus violating protocol; the Germans complained that though Americans “pretend” to be egalitarian, what with their open-door policies and first-name basis, they made decisions in a far more dictatorial manner: a manager would often make a unilateral decision, and expect his subordinates to follow his lead. Germans, in contrast, would make decision by consensus.This had further implications: because Germans would spend a lot of time conferring before making a decision, once a decision was made, they would stick to it. Americans would make a snap decision, and expect to change course as new information came in.

And yet, Germans are not that far from Americans in their decision making style:

How does Japan, a country that is considered to have one of the most hierarchical cultures in the world also have the most consensual decision making style? Apparently, they operate on what is called the ringi system: low-level managers discuss an idea among them, reach a consensus, and present this to their 1-ups; the 1-ups then have discussion among themselves, and once the proposal has everyone’s stamp of approval, it is sent to the people further up the chain, and so on until it reaches the ultimate decision maker. By that time, everyone in the hierarchy is aligned to the proposal (though I have no idea what happens if the group of more senior managers disagrees with their subordinates’ recommendation).

My own experience corroborates this scale. P&G has a standardised system for making decisions, but even within such a system, you can see that managers from different cultures have different preferences. One of my German superiors perfected the system of management by walking: he would take walks around the office, listen to what his subordinates were working on, and make suggestions for what course of action to take. Even when he dictated a decision, he would invest time in explaining his reasoning to get his subordinates’ buy-in. In contrast, an American manager I had would also solicit inputs from his team members, but was more likely to unilaterally decide a course of action — even if he did not have his subordinates full agreement (for example, on one occasion, he asked me to conduct a very large piece of analysis, which I felt was unnecessary. I explained why I thought this work was not needed, but he told me to do it anyway. (To be fair to him, he turned out to be right — that work did yield important insights.)).

You can immediately see what people at each end of the spectrum think of working with colleagues from the opposite end: people from top-down cultures find consensual decision making to be too slow, bureaucratic and inflexible; consensual decision makers find top-down cultures to be too dictatorial and indecisive, as decisions are frequently revised (not having undergone lengthy examination from the beginning).

My own view on this and the preceding section is that it is not enough for managers to learn and understand different cultures: true leaders must also be able to shape the culture of their own organisation. When it comes to decision-making, both extremes are not ideal. If you have a culture that insists on a rigid hierarchy where decisions are always made at the top, you may miss out on valuable input from the people further down the chain. Moreover, senior managers who do not interact with those at the bottom of the pyramid risk losing touch with the business environment — consider the example of John Lasseter’s clash with Disney’s Nine Old Men: Lasseter was fired from Disney for pushing for computer animation; he joined Pixar, which Dinsey ended up acquiring for $7.4 billion (at which point Lasseter was appointed Chief Creative Officer for both Pixar and Disney Animation).

On the other hand, an overly-egalitarian, consensual culture where everyone’s opinion has the same weight regardless of experience or expertise is likely to be very slow and ineffective. For example, a poll Meyer cites found that fewer than 10% of Swedes believed a manager should match his subordinates’ technical competence. But it can quickly get extremely frustrating trying to explain a thorny, technical issue to a superior who just doesn’t have the necessary knowledge to understand it (ask Gary Cohn).

Beyond this, I think each kind of culture is better suited to particular kinds of problems. Companies operating in industries where speed of innovation is critical, and failure is not catastrophic, require a relatively flat culture, so that everyone can contribute ideas, but with a top-down, flexible decision-making style, so that decisions can be taken quickly and revised frequently. Companies working on capital-intensive, long-term projects (say, building nuclear reactors) would benefit from a hierarchical culture with an experienced leader at the top, and a consensual, slow decision-making style that ensures all relevant facts are considered before taking action. You do not want to start building a factory only to realise you have laid the foundations over a major fault line.

So, I think leaders must be aware of different cultures, but not so as to adapt to them, but so that they know what they need to do to align them to their organisation’s mission.

Trust: cognitive vs affective

The more scientific terms for these two types of trust are cognitive and affective trust respectively. The former refers to the trust you have in a person thanks to their accomplishments and skills; the latter is the trust you have in people to whom you are close.

A Harvard Business School survey cited by Meyer highlights a significant difference between American and Chinese managers: the Americans separate cognitive and affective trust. The Chinese connect the two. Meyer brings up an anecdote illustrating this difference: she interviewed a Chinese manager, Ren, working in America who once formed a friendship with an American he met at a gym. By happenstance, this American was a potential client for Ren’s company; Ren was surprised to find out that, in spite of their personal friendship, the American wanted to look into the details of a proposed contract, and negotiate a price as though they were strangers.

Another way to frame this divide is as task-based vs relationship-based trust. Task-based cultures separate cognitive from affective trust, whereas relationship-based cultures have more blurred boundaries between the two:

Of course, Meyer accepts that Americans too form relationships with colleagues or business partners, but according to her these tend to be more ephemeral and often only exist to serve a business purpose. The fact you have skied or hit the links with someone does not mean they will not launch a hostile takeover bid for your company if they get the chance. In addition, Meyer stresses that one should not mistake friendliness for relationship-building, nor initial coldness for aversion to forming a bond. She points out that Americans are very smiley, friendly and likely to get into personal discussions with virtual strangers — but this does not necessarily mark a willingness to form a long-lasting bond.

I have three comments on this. First, I am not so sure that relationships count for as little in America, and for as much in, say, China, as Meyer suggests. For instance, she mentions that one of the ramifications of this cultural divide is that firing a salesman in China may be very risky, as they may take all their clients with them. Yet is it not also the case that when private bankers in Switzerland change employers, they take a lot of their customers with them? Is it not true that academics frequently move from institution to institution as a group? Don’t we have the whole “old boys club” thing going on in places like the UK?

On the other hand, the business environment in countries like China is changing rapidly. It is still the case that people may refuse to do business with you if they do not know you; a friend was telling me how her boss is reluctant to hire people he does not personally know and trust, regardless of qualifications. But if you work in a multinational company, like I do, it’s not like your colleagues will ignore you or be difficult until they get to know you. And cognitive trust does play a role in China — the first plant manager I worked with told me on my first day “you have a huge advantage: you are foreign, and have gone to a good university — people will trust you. Use that”. In general, actually, university brand names count for far more in China than in the UK — what is this if not a sign that qualifications that signal capability matter?

Second, I think that, regardless of what kind of culture you find yourself in, it does not hurt to build a personal relationship with your colleagues or customers. Go out with your colleagues, play sports with them, go for lunch — it can’t hurt.

( As I’ve mentioned before, one of the biggest cultural shocks I’ve faced in my career was when I moved from Geneva to London: in Geneva, P&Gers would go for one-hour long lunches, complete with espressos on the company’s terrace. In London, my colleagues would go for quick, 20-minute lunches, which I found shocking. Not only that, but they preferred to go for lunch in large groups, consisting mainly of their immediate,current-team colleagues — whereas in Geneva, people would have 1–1 lunches with friends from other teams or business units). I found this lack of a decent lunch culture appalling — how could you get to know people if you never took the time to talk with them 1–1? (The answer, as I found out, was to go on big nights out together and get hammered — which is both physically and psychologically unhealthy in my view. In fact, this is approach to socialising is characteristic of the British psyche: you cannot risk opening yourself to another person unless you are drunk, in which case you can blame anything you say or do on alcohol.)

(I do not mean to boast (okay, maybe I do, a little), but building affective trust is particularly easy for me in China, because the Chinese love playing card and dice games, on which I am also very keen. Their card games (like much else in China) are very similar to games we have in the west (e.g. whist), except with a bunch of incredibly convoluted rules added on top. Their favourite dice game has the same rules as Perudo/Liar’s dice, except that here it’s a drinking game: in the west, when a player loses a round, they have to lose a die; here, they have to take a shot instead.))

Third, I think this is one of those cases where there is a right and wrong culture. I come from a relationship-based culture, and I have worked in a company where people do build very close relationships (I know plenty of people who met their spouse at P&G, and plenty more who’ve met their best friends in the company — I for one moved in with my ex-boss and had my bachelor party organised by two of my former managers), and though I know that such cultures feel much better than cold, task-based environments, they do come with risks. A relationship-based culture, where affective trust fosters cognitive trust, is more likely to lead to corruption. You appoint your friend to a managerial position, not because they are capable, but because you “trust” them; people like Ren from earlier expect their friends to give them contracts without due diligence; and people will not do business with you until they get to know you — hardly the most efficient or meritocratic way to doing things. So, as in the previous section, leaders should be aware of the local culture they find themselves in, but they should take steps to make it more meritocratic, if it is too much to the affective trust side of the spectrum.

Disagreeing: confrontational vs conciliatory

As you can see, Greece is the polar opposite of China: Greeks are confrontational and emotional, whereas the Chinese are reserved and value harmony — so, if I’ve managed to survive in a Chinese environment, I’d probably do okay everywhere. (Note that the UK is bang in the middle of the two cultures — so, having spent years in England (and being married to an English woman), I found the transition from Greece to China somewhat smoother than it might have been.)

The key difference between confrontational and non-confrontational cultures is that in the former, disagreements are seen as a good thing, and they do not affect people’s personal relationship; in the latter cultures, attacking one’s argument may be seen as attacking the person, and so debates are seen as inappropriate. People from the latter kind of culture are often shocked when they see people from a confrontational culture interact: at university, one of my closest (Greek) friends (and housemate) and I would argue 80% of the time (the remaining 20% was dedicated to South Park and so-called burger movies); that, in conjunction with the fact that the Greek language sounds very harsh to people who don’t speak it, would cause our English friends to ask each one of us in hushed voices “are things alright between you two? You were having such a row!”. We were just as perplexed that people kept interpreting what to us seemed as normal interaction as vicious fighting.

(Actually, thinking back, Greece fully justifies its position at the extreme corner of the chart above: the range of subjects on which we’d have passionate debates was absurdly wide — from the classic uni student “capitalism vs socialism” debate to what you should do if your car is running out of gas in the middle of nowhere — drive faster or slower? Astonishingly, this latter debate was for some inexplicable reason the most acrimonious one we’ve ever had as far as I can remember: three of us were walking home, and the debate reaching a crescendo of irrationally high temper, my friend walked away from the remaining two of us. My second friend told me, “come on, Aris, talk to him, make up”. The best I could come up with was to shout after him, “hey, look, tomorrow you’ll be talking again to us anyway, so you may as well come back and start now”. It didn’t work. (To be fair, that was after a night out, and we’d had our fair share of drinks).)

Meyer suggests a few strategies for managing teams in multicultural environments. First, as in the case of leading, Meyer suggests that senior managers remove themselves from meetings, because their seniority may disincline people from disagreeing openly. In some cultures, even asking for someone’s opinion may come across as pointed and confrontational, so it’s often better to ask your subordinates to meet without you to discuss a problem, and then report their findings to you.

A second tip is to solicit anonymous feedback. In the US, brainstorming meetings are commonplace: a group of managers get together, toss around ideas and critique each other’s suggestions; in other cultures though, people may be unwilling to share half-baked ideas in front of their colleagues. In such cases, you can ask people to write down ideas anonymously.

Another idea is to have pre-meetings. A quick check here: what makes a meeting successful in your eyes?

Most Americans choose (a); most French choose (b); and most Chinese choose ©. In such cultures, it’s helpful to have informal, 1–1 meetings with your colleagues to get everyone on the same page before the actual meeting.

Finally, Meyer says you should adjust your language depending on the culture in which you find yourself. Avoid qualifiers such as “totally” and “completely”, and soften your message with “maybe” &c.

I think this advice is good inasmuch as it will steer you away from trouble, but again, in my view, a good leader should not be content in just adapting and staying out of trouble. Most people I know already think they attend waaay too many meetings, and are tired of office politics; recommending pre-meetings and pre-alignments (and in some cases, pre-pre-alignments) may be helpful in avoiding confrontation, but the downside is that people start spending too much time talking instead of doing.

As in the case of deciding, I think both extremes here are bad: you do not want a culture where people come to blows over questions of mileage optimisation, but you also do not want a culture where no-one feels comfortable challenging a patently idiotic proposal. I think a good leader has a duty to do the following:

First, train their people to feel comfortable to express their ideas and challenge each other — for example, by being upfront and clear about the fact that disagreement does not equal disrespect. It also helps to design exercises that encourage people to disagree with each other. Stereotypes will have you think that it’s nigh impossible to get a Chinese manager to openly challenge a colleague, but this is not my experience. One of the operations managers I work with hosted an offsite for her organisation where managers were split into teams and asked to debate a business question. Not only did people do this and have fun, but the debate highlighted people’s concerns with the company’s strategy that might have gone unvoiced.

Second, develop a system for resolving conflict. “Agree to disagree” is not acceptable in my view: people should be encouraged to uncover their underlying assumptions, and critically evaluate them. P&G’s former CEO had developed such a system for making strategic choices: a) all stakeholders write down what would have to be true for them to have confidence in each of the options identified. b) The team then determines which conditions thus identified are unlikely to be true. c) It then designs and executes tests for each condition and d) goes with the option which the tests have determined to be the most likely to achieve the objective.

Scheduling: Swiss precision vs Indian flexibility

From all of the cultural divides listed in Meyer’s book, I think different peoples’ attitude to time is the most accurate and persistent. It is also the most obviously there-is-a-right-and-wrong one.

It is pretty obvious what his divide addresses, so I do not need to expand on it, so let’s jump straight into criticism.

First, once again, a great deal of cultural misunderstandings stemming from different attitudes to scheduling can be resolved through clear communication instead of “cultural sensitivity”. Meyer brings up an anecdote of giving a lecture in Brazil. She was originally scheduled to talk for 45 minutes, but when she met with the organiser of the event the day before she was to speak, he told her “feel free to take more time than is scheduled if you like”. She asked whether this meant she could take 60 minutes instead, to which the facilitator responded “of course, take the time you need”. On the day of the lecture, the facilitator re-iterated that Meyer should take as much time as she needs. Meyer gave the lecture, and ended it after 65 minutes — even though people still had questions to ask her. The facilitator approached her and told her that her talk was great, but that it finished too early. Meyer was baffled by this, as, in her mind, she actually took longer than the time allotted to her.

Okay, I get that to an American, 60 minutes means 60 minutes. But look, ignoring your host’s repeated request to take as much time as you need, and your audience’s demand for more of your time, is not a cultural misunderstanding, it is bad listening. After all, why couldn’t Meyer have just asked at the 60 minute mark “do we have more time? Is it okay if we go on?” It may be that the Brazilians’ flexibility with time, as opposed to Meyer’s strict interpretation of allocated time slots, is a cultural issue. But the misunderstanding that arose out of that has nothing to do with culture, and everything to do with communication.

Second, though people at the opposite ends of the time scale find each others’ culture stressful, the fact is that strict scheduling is far more optimal. I fully understand and sympathise with people who claim that inx, arbitrary deadlines and schedules are suffocating. But there are some things which are critical, and for which you need to rely on a precise timeline. If a woman is about to give birth, and calls a driver to take her to the hospital, she cannot afford to wait just because the driver has a somewhat fuzzy and liberal interpretation of “get over here, right now”; no-one wants to miss spending Christmas with their family because planes or trains are delayed.

Bottom line: being late in meetings with other people sends a very clear signal: my time, and my priorities, are more valuable than yours. The answer to avoiding stress is not turning up to meetings late, but avoiding setting arbitrary and stressful deadlines, and avoiding non-value adding meetings.


Still though, as I’ve tried to show in this post, I think that discussions on culture almost inevitably fall into three pitfalls that Meyer herself does not entirely avoid, though she does at times acknowledge them:

a) a great deal of cultural misunderstanding can be avoided, not through cultural training, but by good communication;

b) we humans have more in common than anecdotes seem to suggest; as a result, cultural differences are often exaggerated. Moreover, there is very wide variation within a culture. This suggests that cultures are not as inflexible and hard to change as books like Meyer’s may seem to suggest; and

c) as I’ve tried to argue in many of the sections above, the relativist view of “there is no right or wrong culture” is wrong. I am not of course talking about moral superiority here, but about a particular culture’s efficacy in achieving a given goal. Some cultures are better for fostering innovation; some are better at maintaining stability. Operating in a culture that is not conductive towards achieving an organisation’s goal is counter-productive.

Finally, even though Meyer’s framework is excellent in comparing and contrasting different cultures, it is, at the end of the day, an over-simplified model of a culture’s norms and behaviours. (To be fair to her, Meyer never claims her eight cultural dimensions perfectly encapsulate a culture’s essence. Still, it’s important to reinforce this.) Consider this quadrant that Meyer has drawn:

Notice that China is one of the most high-context and indirect-feedback cultures in the world. If you were to take this at face value, you might expect the Chinese to skirt around everything, always communicating using subtle cues and avoiding anything that might give offense. But what might give offense is very different in China vs in the west: the Chinese have no qualms referring to their friends as 小胖子 (xiao pangzi) or “little fatty”, asking you how old you are or how much money you make, and referring to you as “the foreigner” or “the white”. And though it’s true the Chinese very rarely say that something is “bad”, they will very frequently and directly say that something is “not good” or “not right”. So, by all means, do learn how the various cultures map under Meyer’s system, but remember that binary classification into eight categories does not tell the whole story.

Originally published at

I work at Monzo. Ex Google, P&G

I work at Monzo. Ex Google, P&G