Reading the Culture Map in a Global World

The editors of Convene chose to look at globalization through a cultural lens. They give voice to a business professor whose research offers interesting insight into how culture affects business relationships in global settings.

Are you a peach or a coconut? The answer to that question describes your personal interaction style, according to a model developed by Erin Meyer, a professor at international business school INSEAD in Fountainbleau, France. And — as is the premise for her book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business — your answer is largely influenced by the cultural system in which you were raised.

Meyer, who was born in the United States, shared her insights into navigating cultural differences in areas relevant to meetings last summer at PCMA’s Global Professionals Conference – Europe, held at the end of August at Palais des Congrès de Paris. In her work, Meyer has created a set of scales in eight key areas, such as trusting, scheduling, and evaluating, and ranks countries according to where they fall along a spectrum.

Two Types of Trust

In “peach” cultures, including the United States, people tend to be friendly — soft, like a peach — with strangers or those they have just met. But after some small talk with a peach person, you get to the pit, where the peach protects his or her real self. In these cultures, Meyer said, friendliness isn’t the same thing as friendship.

In “coconut” cultures, people are less open (like the hard shell of a coconut) with those they don’t already know. It takes a while to get to know coconut people, but as you do, they become friendlier and open up. Relationships are built slowly.

What might that mean for international meeting professionals, whose conferences are now attracting participants from around the globe?, Convene asked Meyer. More specifically, how do you accommodate attendees from countries for whom building personal relationships takes more time and is a necessary precursor to building trust — and therefore doing business — with others? Those countries include Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Japan, China, and India — and to a lesser extent, France, Italy, and Spain.

Scheduling plentiful and longer networking breaks to enable this kind of meaningful interaction is more important than ever at international events, Meyer said. “Instead of a five-minute quick break,” she said, “make your networking breaks at least a half-hour long.”

Time Warps

Meyer brought up another cultural challenge when it comes to meetings — scheduling, which has more to do with managing your own expectations than building the conference itinerary. Certain cultures (see above list, with the exception of Japan), are more flexible in their approach to time than others (including the United States, Germany, and Switzerland), Meyer said, so you should expect to see attendees from the more time-flexible cultures enter and leave sessions without regard for the schedule. Which, in turn, requires flexibility on the part of time-obsessed North American meeting organizers.

In Africa, “the idea that things would start on time and end on time, and that the schedule would be followed more or less to the minute — just forget it,” Meyer told Convene in an earlier interview. South Africa, including Johannesburg and Cape Town, are exceptions, she said. But in general, “if you’re in Africa, then that’s the most flexible time part of the world.”

“The whole focus is going to be on flexibility and adaptability and relationship building,” she continued, “and speakers will go way over or go way under, and everyone is very relaxed about it. Those are emerging markets, and if you live in Africa, you have to be extremely flexible in order to be successful. That just carries over into all aspects of business.”

Read the rest of the article in the second issue of Boardroom. Download it here.

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