Erin Meyer surprised me. A lot. While it was always clear to my mind that a country’s history has a strong impact on its culture, I somehow always neglected that fact. Why? Because history has always been a boring subject for me. I preferred to live in the present, rather than philosophizing about the past. Sorry, dear historians! However, as with so many other things, time has come for me to start paying more attention to it. In her book “The Culture Map“, Erin Meyer beautifully makes it clear to what extent culture is shaped by history (without intending to do so). The ideas I am going to in this article are thus originally hers!
We are all aware of the indirect way of speaking, also called high-context communication. Sometimes, as westerners, we simply can’t imagine how Asians can understand each other without actually saying what they mean. Huh? What? is a common response – in the good case. In the bad case, the Westerner thinks he knows what’s going on, but in fact has no clue at all. So how is it possible for Asians to get the message without the other person saying it directly? Well, obviously because they have been trained to do so their whole lives. Interestingly it was Peter Drucker who said that “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said” – something Asian parents surely point out to their children frequently.
But what we tend to forget is that indirect communication only works if you share the same frame of reference. If your past experiences are completely different, then your interpretations of what the other person said will inevitably be wrong. That’s why indirect communication only works in homogeneous societies. Western countries traditionally had a lot of immigration going on. Japan, on the other hand, is known to be one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. No wonder western people resolve to saying it “in your face”, while the Japanese go round and round to save face. Generally it works for either of us, but when somebody joins the game who does not share the same history and experiences with those who communicate in an indirect way, then nobody can avoid trouble.
That’s why Erin Meyer makes one point clear: “Multicultural teams need low-context processes”, period. Indirect communication? Yes! But only if we share the same culture.
Another point where history demonstrate its importance is when it comes to egalitarianism vs. hierarchical order. Erin describes how the Romans made it clear based on their clothing who stood where in society. With one glimpse at a shiny purple toga, everybody in the room knew with whom he or she was dealing: the emperor himself.
The Romans’ focus on hierarchy and order had an impact until today. Countries such as Spain and Italy are influenced by the Roman empire are all comparably hierarchical in the way they structure their organizations, the communication flow and the way they make decisions. Purple or not – boss is boss. But things similar to purple clothing exist until today: expensive cars, Armani suits, and separate offices. All these show who is the one in power.
You might think that the oh so scary Vikings made decisions with ax and hammer. And yeah, they often did. But only when it came to getting rid of their enemies. When they made decisions among themselves, they preferred to feast on their well-earned prey while voting about what to do next. Even more surprising – each vote carried equal weight. Yes, you could say they were the early form of a democracy.
Now, what do you think where Denmark and Stockholm, two countries influenced by the Vikings, stand? Right, 100 points! They are both extremely egalitarian. No purple robes, no expensive cars, no fancy offices. A boss just like everyone else, who works just like everyone else. Ax in hand, down goes that tree!
Last but not least I would like to encourage you guys to read “the Culture Map” by Erin Meyer. The impact of a countries history on its culture is not the main point of its book: it’s a framework after which the book is named. It basically describes several dimensions of culture and how to overcome them. I never read a book with examples as clear and relevant as hers. Great read!