Margaret, one of my coaching customers, was required to read The Culture Map (Amazon affiliate). All executives at her Fortune 500 company were required to read it. All executives at this company have teams around the world. And of course, our conversations, focus on communication and culture.
Margaret really, really enjoyed The Culture Map and she thought it would help me better understand her goals and in the end, potentially re-frame my coaching advice.
I knew I was going to like The Culture Map book when page 1 greeted me with an illustrative story about communication and culture. It is an excellent story with all of the right story elements. Examples include:
- Compelling opening
- Interesting character dialogue
- Interesting inner dialogue
- Inspiring business message, what we call your Better Tomorrow Message™ (“Know Silent Bo’s Communication Culture”)
- Good flow
- Clear beginning, middle, and end
- Compelling call-to-action at the end
Culture Map Story: Know Silent Bo’s Communication Culture
When dawn broke that chilly November morning in Paris, I was driving to my office for a meeting with an important new client. I hadn’t slept well, but that was nothing unusual, since before an important training session I often have a restless night. But what made this night different were the dreams that disturbed my sleep.
I found myself shopping for groceries in a big American-style supermarket. As I worked my way through my list—fruit, Kleenex, more fruit, a loaf of bread, a container of milk, still more fruit—I was startled to discover that the items were somehow disappearing from my cart more quickly than I could find them and stack them in the basket. I raced down the aisle of the store, grabbing goods and tossing them into my cart, only to see them vanish without a trace. Horrified and frustrated, I realized that my shopping would never be complete.
After having this dream repeatedly throughout the night, I gave up trying to sleep. I got up, gulped a cup of coffee and got dressed in the predawn dark, and wound my way through the empty Paris streets to my office near the Champs Elysées to prepare for that day’s program. Reflecting that my nightmare of ineffectual shopping might reflect my anxiety about being completely ready for my clients, I poured my energy into arranging the conference room and reviewing my notes for the day ahead. I would be spending the day with one of the top executives at Peugeot Citroën, preparing him and his wife for the cultural adjustments they’d need to make in their upcoming move to Wuhan, China. If the program was successful, my firm would be hired to provide the same service for another fifty couples later in the year, so there was a lot at stake.
Bo Chen, the Chinese country expert who would be assisting with the training session, also arrived early. Chen, a thirty-six-year-old Paris-based journalist from Wuhan, worked for a Chinese newspaper. He had volunteered to act as a Chinese culture expert for the training, and his input would be one of the most critical elements in making the day a success. If he was as good as I hoped, the program would be a hit and we would get to conduct the fifty follow-up sessions. My confidence in Chen had been bolstered by our preparatory meetings. Articulate, extroverted, and very knowledgeable, Chen seemed perfect for the job. I had asked him to prepare two to three concrete business examples to illustrate each cultural dimension I would be covering during the program, and he had enthusiastically confirmed he would be ready.
Monsieur and Madame Bernard Arrive
Monsieur and Madame Bernard arrived, and I installed them on one side of the big glass rectangular table with Chen on the other side. Taking a deep, hopeful breath, I began the session, outlining on a flip chart the cultural issues that the Bernards needed to grasp so their time in China would be a success. As the morning wore on, I explained each dimension of the key issues, answered the Bernards’ questions, and carefully kept an eye on Chen so I could help facilitate his input.
But Chen didn’t seem to have any input. After finishing the first dimension, I paused briefly and looked to him for his input, but he didn’t speak up. He didn’t open his mouth, move his body forward, or raise his hand. Apparently, he had no example to provide. Not wanting to embarrass Chen or to create an awkward situation by calling on him when he was not ready, I simply continued with my next point.
To my growing dismay, Chen remained silent and nearly motionless as I went through the rest of my presentation. He nodded politely while I was speaking, but that was all; he used no other body language to indicate any reactions, positive or negative. I gave every example I could think of and engaged in dialogue with the client as best I could. Dimension after dimension, I spoke, shared, and consulted with the Bernards—and dimension after dimension, there was no input from Chen.
Taking a Chance on Bo
I continued for three full hours. My initial disappointment with Chen was spilling over into full-fledged panic. I needed his input for the program to succeed. Finally, although I didn’t want to create an awkward moment in front of the client, I decided to take a chance. “Bo,” I asked, “did you have any examples you would like to share?”
Chen sat up straight in his chair, smiled confidently at the clients, and opened up his notebook, which was filled with pages and pages of typed notes. “Thank you, Erin,” he replied. “I do.” And then, to my utter relief, Chen began to explain one clear, pertinent, fascinating example after another.
<End of Story, transition to Erin Meyer’s conclusion and call-to-action>
In reflecting on the story of my awkward engagement with “Silent Bo,” it’s natural to assume that something about Chen’s personality, my personality, or the interaction between us might have led to the strained situation. Perhaps Chen was mute because he is not a very good communicator, or because he is shy or introverted and doesn’t feel comfortable expressing himself until pushed. Or perhaps I am an incompetent facilitator, telling Chen to prepare for the meeting and then failing to call on him until the session was almost over. Or maybe, more charitably, I was just so tired from dreaming about lost fruit all night long that I missed the visual cues Chen was sending to indicate that he had something to say.
The Story of Silent Bo is a Story of Culture
The truth is that the story of Silent Bo is a story of culture, not personality. But the cultural explanation is not as simple as you might think. Chen’s behavior in our meeting lines up with a familiar cultural stereotype. Westerners often assume that Asians, in general, are quiet, reserved, or shy. If you manage a global team that includes both Asians and Westerners, it is very likely that you will have heard the common Western complaint that the Asian participants don’t speak very much and are less forthright about offering their individual opinions in team meetings. Yet the cultural stereotype does not reflect the actual reason behind Chen’s behavior.
A Systematic Approach to Deal Effectively with Cultural Differences
In this book, I provide a systematic, step-by-step approach to understanding the most common business communication challenges that arise from cultural differences, and offer steps for dealing with them more effectively. The process begins with recognizing the cultural factors that shape human behavior and methodically analyzing the reasons for that behavior. This, in turn, will allow you to apply clear strategies to improve your effectiveness at solving the most thorny problems caused by cross-cultural misunderstandings—or to avoid them altogether.
Note: I edited the author’s notes and reflection after the story for brevity.
About Erin Meyer, Author, The Culture Map
Erin Meyer is a professor at INSEAD, one of the leading international business schools. Her work focuses on how the world’s most successful managers navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a global environment. She helps companies to develop organizational cultures that breed both flexibility and innovation and offers cutting-edge strategies to improve the effectiveness of projects that span the globe.
Living and working in Africa, Europe, and the United States prompted Erin’s study of the communication patterns and business systems of different parts of the world. Her Culture Map framework allows international executives to pinpoint their leadership preferences, and compare their methods to the management styles of other cultures. Erin has taught thousands of executives from five continents to decode cross-cultural complexities impacting their success, and to work more effectively across these differences.
More recently Erin conducted an in-depth study with Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO of Netflix, investigating the underlying principles necessary for building a corporate culture that is inventive, fast, and flexible. The results of that research were published in their new book No Rules Rules (Penguin Press, September 2020).
Erin publishes frequently in Harvard Business Review. Her December 2015 HBR article “Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da” was the most read HBR article of 2015. She has also published in the New York Times Sunday paper, Forbes.com, and The Times of India. She has been interviewed on CNN, Bloomberg TV, the BBC, and NPR. Her case, “Leading Across Cultures at Michelin,” won the ECCH 2010 European case award for best human resources management case of the year. Erin’s work at INSEAD includes directing the Leading Across Borders and Cultures program.
In 2019, Erin was listed by the Thinkers50, for the second time, as one of the fifty most impactful business writers in the world and in 2018 she was selected by HR magazine as one of the top 30 most influential HR thinkers of the year.
Prior to INSEAD Erin was a Director of Training and Development at HBOC and a Director of Business Operations at McKesson Corporation.
An American living in Paris, Erin began her career teaching English students in Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer and later working with Asian immigrants in the United States. She frequently gives keynote speeches and runs seminars for organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Toshiba, Twitter, Sinopec, Gerdau, KPMG, Michelin, Deutsche Bank, Heineken, L’Oréal, ExxonMobil, Novo Nordisk, and BNP Paribas.
More Reading on Culture
- In Other Words – A Great Book for Logophiles (People Who Love Words) (read)
- My Uncle Henry Taught Me A Valuable Lesson (read)
- A Bad Joke could and Likely will Cause Social Harm (read)
Photography Source: Book cover from The Culture Map; Photo from Erin Meyer, Author; Design © Copyright 2021, The Chief Storyteller®, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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