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The Culture Map: The Third Culture Kid Perspective

A few months ago, I wrote about my experience being a hyphenated Asian in Westernized workplaces. As a continuation of this conversation, I wanted to bring up a great culture mapping framework from a book called “The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures” by Erin Meyer. In the book, Meyer brilliantly captures eight ways that cultures differ by country: how people communicate, evaluate, lead, decide, trust, disagree, schedule, and persuade. Any third culture kid, immigrant, or expat will relate to some of these insights and how much cultures can vary depending on location. Read below for further insights.

Erin Meyer is a professor at an international business school called INSEAD and her work and research have focused on how the world’s successful managers navigate complex cultural differences in the global environment. She has lived and worked in Africa, Europe and the United States, and has many great personal anecdotes about her own international adventures and mishaps, which she shares on this podcast episode with Dax Shepard.

This blog post uses data from The Culture Map book and tools that Erin offers on her site for individuals and teams to use for a small fee. I paid to do the personal profile tool and will share some of my results.

The Culture Map Framework looks at eight dimensions:

  1. Communicating
  2. Evaluating
  3. Leading
  4. Deciding
  5. Trusting
  6. Disagreeing
  7. Scheduling
  8. Persuading

Each one has a spectrum:

My Personal Results as a Third Culture Kid:

For this analysis, I looked at a few key countries that shape my identity:

  • The United States: where I was born, partially raised (early childhood, high school onward), and worked for 10+ years –> my primary social and work conditioning
  • Canada: where I was partially raised (elementary to middle school) –> my secondary social conditioning
  • South Korea: where my parents grew up –> my primary childhood and personal values conditioning
  • Netherlands: where I currently live –> my tertiary social and secondary work conditioning

What this data tells me:

  • Out of all cultures, I am closest to the U.S. where I was born, raised, and worked the longest. This makes sense to me because as I left home I increasingly assimilated to the external culture and environment where I was predominantly spending time. At the same time, I would be lying if I said I purely related to American culture. There are a lot of elements and values of Korean culture that I am deeply aligned with.
  • Korea is noticeably far right compared to Western countries. This is consistent with what I’ve seen from most Asian versus Western countries in the tool. Growing up, this was a point of tension with my parents and Korean relatives. Inside of my house, I was taught to be hierarchical, relationships-based, conflict-avoidant, and polite / indirect. Outside of my house, I was rewarded for being the opposite of those things in U.S. and European circles (especially in the workplace). The result of this was becoming really good at code-switching with Koreans versus non-Koreans.
  • I personally skew way more left than the average Korean does. This means that I have spent most of my childhood feeling different from the cultural norms and values I was being taught at home, which admittedly got me nicknames like “wild child”, “trouble maker” and “difficult” among Korean circles.
  • In the ultimate plot twist, I now live in a country that is extremely left and therefore offers another extreme view. In the Netherlands I am often classified as American and am often given feedback to be more egalitarian towards senior leaders, more direct, and yet more consensus-driven (which tends to yield less work efficiency) in the Dutch work environment. This feedback is in direct contradiction with feedback I’ve gotten my whole life and for most of my career. It has been an interesting experience to say the least.

What all of this has taught me

  • Everything is freaking relative and creates skewed biases! How one culture sees another really depends on the vantage point they are coming from, and all of us have these biases that we should be more aware of. I think this is especially interesting for Americans to consider, as the U.S. is drastically different from other cultures that aren’t as well-represented in mass media (movies, news, social media, etc).
  • There’s no point in judging whether someone is good or bad. People just are who they are, and a lot of it is culturally driven. This framework has allowed me to develop empathy for my different cultural identities and understand why I’ve been told in some cultures that I am “bad” versus “good” depending on their values and norms. When I think about children today, I can’t help but wonder if globalization and the Internet will help them build a stronger sense of self rooted in their values rather than their cultural environment. I’m not sure if this is true, but I hope it is.
  • Empathy through exposure to differences makes us better people and leaders. Developing empathy and non-judgement towards others is a necessary skill for leaders of the modern workplace and especially for leaders of international businesses. One of the best things about living or working abroad is the ability to understand how similar and different we are across many dimensions. There’s nothing quite like exposure to different people that teaches us empathy more than books. For this reason, I would highly recommend you consider doing an expat job if that’s an option for you and to truly mingle with the culture you immerse yourself in.

If you’re a third culture kid, an immigrant, or an expat… consider this cross-pollination of cultures to be a superpower! It will help you understand how to better work and communicate with different people and meet them where they are. It may be tough and uncomfortable sometimes to feel different, but the life lessons are pretty invaluable and unique.

If you want to look into your own personal results, check out The Culture Map book and tools that you can use individually or with your teams. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do to compare cultures, countries, and yourself in the midst of it as a global citizen.

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