The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business

Provides a framework for thinking about cultures, explains how cultures differ from each other, and how to work across cultural boundaries.


The Chinese cultural tendency is to listen and show they're good listeners. They only say something when called on or when there is enough silence, multiple seconds.

p. 3 - 6

Americans are focused on practicality and efficiency. They are more explicit and transparent than people in France.

p. 7

Americans, when giving feedback to a subordinate, they wrap it in between positive feedback. For Europeans the negative feedback can feel minor, but it should be given more importance.

p. 9

In India, a half-shake, half-nod of the head indicates interest, enthusiasm, or respectful listening.
In most other cultures it's a sign of disagreement, uncertainty, or lack of support.

p. 11

The eight scale model is the heart of the book: * Communicating: low-context vs high-context * Evaluating: direct vs. indirect negative feedback * Persuading: principles-first vs. application-first * Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical * Deciding: consensual vs. top-down * Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based * Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoiding confrontation * Scheduling: linear-time vs. flexible-time

p. 16

To use it it's good to compare your own culture on the scale to the one of the person you're interacting with.
What's important is the relative gap on the scale between two countries.
(The pages include an example)

p. 16 - 18

The scale of a country is represented by a point, but derived from a bell curve.

Bell Curve!

The point is the mid-position of a range of acceptable behaviors in that country.
A person from that country may choose any behavior in that range.
These ranges between any 2 countries can overlap, or not. E.g. the range of how to give negative feedback. The culture sets a range, and within that range the individual makes a choice.
It's a question of culture and personality.

p. 18 - 20

Absolute positioning on the scale is not important. Only relative to where it is for you.

p. 21 - 23

As a leader it's also important how cultures perceive each other.

p. 23

People often get defensive about their culture.

p. 24

When you're in and of a culture, it's often difficult to see that culture.
People often only recognize regional differences and don't see it as a whole.

p. 25

Chapter 1: Listening to the Air - Communicating across cultures

The skills involved in being an effective communicator vary dramatically from one culture to another.

p. 31

In Anglo-Saxon cultures people communicate as explicitly as possible.
Accountability for accurate transmission is on the communicator: "If you don't understand, it's my fault".

In many Asian countries messages are conveyed implicitly. Communication is subtle and may depend on context.
Responsibility for transmission of the message is shared between sender and receiver.

The latter is also true for many African cultures, lesser Latin American ones and Latin European ones, including France.

p. 31

These differences are referred to as low and high (shared) context.
Low shared context -> explicit High shared context -> implicit

p. 34

Languages reflect these communication styles. High-context languages have a high percentage of words that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

p. 37

Graphic where countries are on the scale

p. 39

High-context cultures tend to have long shared history. Usually they are relationship oriented societies.

p. 40

If you're from a low-context culture, you may perceive a high-context communicator as secretive, intransparent, or unable to communicate effectively.
The other way around, from a high-context culture you may perceive the low-context communicator as condescending, patronizing, or inappropriately stating the obvious.

p. 42

British joke often with a serious voice, also irony and sarcasm.
Americans may suspect it's a joke, but don't dare laugh just in case it wasn't.
Americans often say "just kidding" to make it explicit it was a joke.

p. 44 - 46

Low/high context has also consequences for meetings. UK likes clearly stating what was decided at the end of meetings. France doesn't.

p. 46 - 47

When communicating with higher-context cultures, listen more carefully. Learn to listen to what is meant instead of what is said.
With lower-context cultures focus more on what is said, to offset your own cultural tendencies.

p. 50

In high-context cultures "no" can come in many disguises.

p. 50

When working with lower-context cultures, be as clear as possible. Clearer than you're used to.

p. 53

When high-context cultures don't understand something, they try to read between the lines.

p. 53

Worst misunderstandings happen between 2 different high-context cultures.
=> Multicultural teams need low-context communication

p. 55

Nice list of rules for meetings to catch misunderstandings.

p. 56

Putting things in writing may signify a lack of trust in high-context cultures.

p. 57

Explain why you're doing it. And the cultural differences. That will make everything go smoother.

p. 59

Chapter 2: The Many Faces of Polite - Evaluating performance and providing negative feedback

All cultures believe in constructive criticism. But what's considered constructive in one culture may be viewed as destructive in another.

p. 62

Managers in different countries are conditioned to give feedback in different ways.
Chinese never criticize openly.
Dutch are always honest and straight.
Americans wrap negative feedback in positive ones.
French criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

p. 65

Language is an indicator.
More direct cultures tend to use upgraders, e.g. absolutely, totally, strongly, "this is totally inappropriate".
Indirect cultures use downgraders, e.g. kind of, a bit, maybe.
Deliberate understatements are also downgraders.

p. 65

Anglo-Dutch translation guide (funny)

p. 67

Country scale for evaluating, i.e. giving feedback

p. 69

Directness in communication and feedback don't always correlate. Map of cultures in quadrants.

p. 72

There are different strategies for dealing with each.

p. 71 - 87

Rule for working with more direct (quadrant A) cultures: don't try to do it like them.
It's easy to go too far and not apply the subtleties required.

p. 72 - 73

The excitement of Americans, and their 3 positives for a negative, can feel dishonest to more direct feedback cultures.

p. 78

It helps openly addressing cultural differences. Positive way of doing it.

p. 81 - 82

In cultures of quadrant C negative feedback can be given publicly if framed as a joke, given in joking or friendly manner.
In cultures of quadrant D negative feedback must always be given in private.

p. 82

In less individualistic cultures being singled out with positive feedback is embarrassing. So give any feedback in private.

p. 83

In Asian cultures blurring the message can also be highly effective.

p. 83

There are a few strategies for blurring the message:

  • Pass it on over a period of time
  • Give it over lunch, don't reference the week after
  • Leave out the negative, only say the positive
    • E.g. The first session is good. (No mention of 2nd and 3rd session)

p. 84 - 86

In quadrant D cultures it is possible to give scathing feedback and be within the norm. From a boss to an employee.
But this has intricate cultural issues and foreigners shouldn't try it.

p. 87

Chapter 3: Why versus How - The art of persuasion in a multicultural world

The kinds of arguments you find persuasive are rooted in your culture's philosophical, religious, and educational assumptions and attitudes.
Persuasion is profoundly culture-based.

p. 89

E.g. Germans try to understand the theoretical concepts first. In the US they start with the result.

p. 90 - 93

2 styles of reasoning:

  • Principles-first / deductive
    • Derive conclusions from general principles or concepts
    • E.g. copper conducts electricity, statue is made of copper, therefore statue conducts
  • Applications-first / inductive
    • Derive conclusions from patterns of factual observations from the real world
    • E.g. Minnesota is cold when you travel it in Jan or Feb 100 times => Minnesota is cold during winter

p. 93

Everyone is capable of both styles of reasoning.

p. 93

In principles-first cultures people want to understand the why behind a boss' request before moving to action.
Application-first learners focus more on how.

This can lead to frustration because people either feel demotivated or that the other is uncooperative.

p. 95

Graphic on persuading scale.

p. 96

Clear examples of differences can be found in legal systems. The US system is applications-first, focusing on precedent. The EU system is principles-first, focusing on the written law.

p. 98

For application-first: "Get to the point (fast) and stick to it".

p. 101

Strategies for persuading across cultures.

p. 101 - 104

French and Germans see confrontation as a key aspect of the decision making process.
Chinese see confrontation as an affront to team relationships.

p. 105

In Western philosophies you can remove an item from it's environment and analyze it separately.
Chinese philosophies emphasize interdependencies and interconnectedness (with surroundings).

This is illustrated with asking someone to take a picture of a person.
The German takes a headshot, the Chinese puts the whole person and the room in the picture.

p. 110

Holistic thinking: the Asian approach to persuasion

p. 104 - 112

In specific cultures people respond well to receiving detailed instructions about what's expected of them.
In holistic cultures you'll be more influential if you explain the big picture and how the pieces fit together.

p. 112

Chapter 4: How much Respect do you want? - Leadership, hierarchy, and power

In Denmark most leader have an egalitarian style. Everyone is equal. To people used to a hierarchical style, it can seem that they're

  • weak, ineffective leaders
  • don't know how to manage
  • incompetent

Actions like giving up the corner office can suggest the team is not important.

p. 104 - 112

Geert Hofstede became the most famous cross-cultural researcher in history.
=> Person to learn from

p. 120

He described power distance as "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that the power is distributed inequally".

p. 121

In egalitarian cultures an aura of authority comes from acting as one of the team, in hierarchical cultures by setting yourself clearly apart.

p. 122

Picture of "Leading" scale. From egalitarian to hierarchical.

p. 125

Questions: Important for manager to have most answers of subordinates?

2 viewpoints:

  • I want them to figure it out for themselves
  • How can they move ahead if I don't give them the answers they need?

p. 126

European scale can broadly be classified as South (Roman influence) and North (Wikings influence).
Then there's Asia (Confucius influence).

p. 126 - 131

Table about differences about egalitarian and hierarchical culture.

p. 131

The Confucius concept of hierarchy has the same amount of responsibility of the higher person to care for those under him as the lower person's responsibility to follow.

p. 132

Managing in a hierarchical culture:

  • Remember your obligations
  • Addressing by first name is uncomfortable, suggest hybrid, e.g. title + name (Mr. Mike)
  • Treat the higher person first (e.g. handshakes, seating arrangements)

p. 132 - 135

It's helpful to know the extreme cases. Extreme egalitarian is an employee casually writing an email with criticism about the new initiative to the CEO.
Extreme hierarchical is greeting the boss first, lest he be offended.

p. 135

In hierarchical cultures you email the boss, someone on the same level as you. Not ICs directly.

p. 136 - 137

Strategies for cross-cultural level-skipping

p. 138

Asking for opinions can feel like a test if they know what the boss wants, in a hierarchical culture.

p. 139

Strategies for getting opinions in hierarchical cultures

p. 140

Strategies for getting opinions in egalitarian cultures

p. 141

Chapter 5: Big D or little D - Who decides, and how?

There is a nuance in egalitarian vs. hierarchical. It can be divided in formal distance of boss and subordinate, and who makes decisions, group vs. individual.

p. 144

Most egalitarian cultures also value consensus decision making. The US is a notable exception with top down decision making.

p. 145

Germany is an exception in the other direction. A bit hierarchical but consensus decision making.

p. 146

Germans commit much stronger to decisions than Americans, who are much quicker to react to new information.

p. 147

Americans emphasize quick decisions and adapting if wrong.

p. 148

Comparisons of systems.

Both work as long as everyone understands which one they're working in and act accordingly. Mixing them leads to confusion.

p. 149

Deciding scale

p. 150

Japanese Ringi system

Consensus on each level, then going one level up. Root building beforehand.

p. 154 - 158

Strategies for dealing with different decision making cultures

p. 158 - 160

In a global team it makes sense to discuss and decide on an approach beforehand.

p. 160

Chapter 6: The Head or the Heart - Two types of trust and how they grow

2 types of trust:

  • Cognitive trust: trust from the head
    • Confidence in accomplishments, skills, reliability
  • Affective trust: trust from the heart
    • Emotional closeness, empathy, friendship

p. 168

Americans separate these 2 kinds of trust, the practical and emotional. Mixing them is seen as unprofessional.
Chinese connect them. For them the separation can indicate a lack of sincerity.
=> removes prejudice that Chinese are inefficient

p. 168

Trusting scale

p. 171

Previously the US dominated global business, so you had to develop cognitive trust for international success.
Now countries who build more on affective trust get stronger, so now you need to work on that too.

p. 171 - 172

Peach vs. coconut: friendly does not equal relationship-based
Hard to summarize, but still important

p. 174 - 177

Developing a relation will pay dividends regardless of culture.

p. 178

A good way to start is with things you have in common.
If there's nothing obvious, dig deeper, or maybe even create something (e.g. finding Indian pop songs)

p. 171 - 172

If you don't have a relationship with Indians, they'll tell you everything is ok even if the entire project went up in flames.

p. 181

After a day of work a client invites you to dinner. How do you feel?

  • Careful to maintain professional composure. Don't drink too much, let down your guard or make a bad impression. You are friendly, attentive, trying to connect, but showing your best self.
  • Ready to let go. You've been focused on business all day, now is the time to have fun, develop friendships, show who you are outside the work setting, and get others to know you that way.

p. 181

The latter works better for relationship based cultures.

p. 182

The reason some cultures invest so much time in relationship building is the legal system.
If it works well you can sign a contract and trust that you can enforce it. If it doesn't you need to trust the person.
In many cultures the relationship is your contract. You don't have one without the other.

p. 184 - 185

Tips for dealing with lunch in different cultures.

p. 186 - 187

In relationship-based cultures people often don't respond to emails of people they never met.

p. 190

The more relationship-based, the more social talk there is on a phone call, before moving on to business. Australia e.g. 1min, Mexico e.g. 7min

p. 191

When in doubt, let the other person lead.

p. 191

Same for email. The more you mimic the other person's email style, the more likely they are to respond.

p. 192

In some cultures emails can come across as rude if you jump right to the business context.

p. 192

Chapter 7: The Needle, not the Knife - Disagreeing productively

The French love to debate

p. 195 - 196

Explanation of "face".
Everyone understands that concept implicitly, but never hurts to have a proper explanation.

p. 198

In Confucian societies like China, Korea, Japan, preserving group harmony by saving face for all members is of utmost importance.

p. 198

Everyone has a role and must conform to its expectations.

p. 199

In China, protecting another person's face is more important than stating what you believe is correct.

p. 199

Disagreeing scale

p. 201

To assess where your culture falls on the scale, ask "If someone disagrees strongly with my idea, does that suggest they are disapproving of *me* or just my *idea*?"

p. 200

Emotional expressiveness is not the same thing as comfort in expressing open disagreement.

p. 201 - 204

4-quadrant-matrix mapping expressiveness and confrontational-ness

p. 204

German concept: Sachlichkeit. Separating emotions from a debate.
That's why they can debate topics Americans wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. E.g. politics.
For Germans it merely signals interest.

p. 206 - 207

Arabic cultures may appear as if fighting, when merely speaking with passion.

p. 207

In Korea and China behavior is different towards in-group (people you have a relationship with) and out-group.
Confucius provided no guidance how to behave towards people you have no relationship with. Thus it can often be indifference or even hostility.

p. 209

Tips for getting global teams to disagree agreeably

p. 210 - 216

Americans tend to perceive dissent as threat to their unity.

p. 217

Chapter 8: How late is late? - Scheduling and cross-cultural perceptions of time

There are time-flexible cultures where arriving 15 or 45 min late makes little difference.

p. 220

In France you get ~10min more leeway than in the US.

p. 221

In time-flexible cultures conference talks can take far longer than scheduled if the audience likes it.

p. 222 - 224

There are different views on time. Mono- and polychronic. They even talk differently about time.

p. 224 - 225

Scheduling scale

p. 227

Germany was influenced by the industrial revolution, where everything needed to be on time.
In Nigeria there are fewer machines and it's more important to adapt to the environment.

p. 226

Differences in line queueing behavior

p. 228 - 230

Differences in meetings, agenda following

p. 230 - 231

People can be remarkably adaptable when it comes to the scheduling scale, if the team leader establishes a clear and explicit team culture.
E.g. Saudis being punctual to the minute.

p. 238

People from each side of the scheduling scale see those from the other side as inefficient.

p. 239