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Jan 13 15

The Geometry of Culture

It’s a triangle graphic I’ve seen many times while working in development centers here in the Czech Republic.  The brain child of Richard D. Lewis, a polyglot cross-cultural wizard and author of “When Cultures Collide.” He plotted countries along the edges of an equilateral triangle for use as a tool for cultural comparison.  The vertices of the triangle each represent one of his three cultural classifications: Linear-Active, Multi-Actives and Reactive.  Countries are plotted along the edges of the triangle, with their distance from the vertices indicating the ratio of attributes their culture takes from the nearest vertices. The graphic pops up periodically in power point presentations here, so if you haven’t heard about it, read on.

The classifications, associated graphic and attribute lists are part of a much larger dialog on navigating cultural difference, but let’s just look at the triangle for now.  Always keep in mind that Lewis acknowledges that this model does rely on generalizations and not every individual in a particular culture will exhibit all characteristics.  Nevertheless, it is still a useful tool for putting your interactions with people from different cultures into a contextual framework.  It’s also a good way to see how well developed your cultural stereotypes are!

In the first corner, we have the Linear Actives.  Linear-Active Cultures are thought to: “Plan ahead step by step,” “Confront with logic” and “Respect officialdom.”  Now, let’s dig into our grab bag of cultural stereotypes and try to decide who could be possibly the poster boy for these attributes?  No, it’s not the Vulcans but rather the industrious Germans.  The Swiss and Luxembourgers round out the proto linear actives.  Seems logical to me.


In the next corner we’ve got those that are “Emotional,” have “Unlimited body language” and “Flexible truth.”  These impulsive extroverts are the Multi-Actives, and there are a ton of prototypical cultures that top this triangle.  Imagine an emotional talker, waving his hands about as he explains eloquently how the referee mistreated his football club.  Yes, the Italians are first-listed culture on this vertices.  Lewis rounds out this vertices with several other South American countries.  It must be something about the weather!

The final corner of this triangle of stereotypes would be the Reactive cultures.  These folks are “Polite yet indirect,” they “Conceal feelings” and “Must not lose face.” You get partial credit if you guessed Japan as the king of this corner but, in fact, the most Reactive is apparently Vietnam. Japan is actually a penultimate member, sitting one tick closer to Linear Active.  This whole corner is rounded out by Asian cultures who are described as being courteous, amiable and accommodating.

The next three noteworthy points would be the midpoints of each side.  These halfling cultures exhibit a blend of traits of each of their more pure neighbors.  So, you just have to ask yourself – what do you get if you cross Germany with Vietnam?  This is not a joke, per say, but the answer seems like one at first.  Canada.  Yes, that’s right, Germany + Vietnam / 2 = Canada.  If you got that one, you clearly cheated and looked ahead at the triangle.  Still, though, that stereotype math can work if you think about it!  I’ll leave it to you.

Next we have the emotional robots, equidistant from Linear-Active and Multi-Active.  Belgium, Isreal and South Africa end up here.  It’s hard for me to decide if those countries make the most sense as I haven’t met many people from Belgium but, again, it does feel right at the gut level, particularly when you look at the entire continuum.

Finally, we look at the point furthest from Linear Active.  What culture is the furthest from being a German as possible whilst still remaining on this triangle? We’re looking for a culture that exhibits a blend of Multi-Active and Reactive traits.  Turns out it’s Indian and Pakistan.

So there you have it.  A concise representation of most of the main countries on the planet, mapped out in a logical way.  I joke about it, but as you walk node-by-node around the triangle, it’s hard not to nod your head with a pensive frown thinking, “yeah, that makes sense.”


And then you watch an America give a talk

As already mentioned, the Czech Republic inhabits an enviable position on the triangle, from the perspective of an offshoring country, sandwiched between Australia/Ireland on side, and the USA on the other.  As an American living in the Czech Republic for 15+ years, and having traveled extensively both inside and outside of Europe, I do believe living here is less of a culture shock living here than there would be if I’d settled in, say, Vietnam.  That said, there are still some pretty significant cultural differences (as illustrated in the indie film Rex-patriates).  Back when I worked at Sun Microsystems, I saw these differences on display whenever some high level exec would come in from the States, power point presentation packed with subtle (or not so subtle) witticisms and rah-rah, and energetically present to a completely silent room.   In the most painful instance of this, one of the execs tried to get the audience to clap along with him.  I still shake my head thinking of the awkwardness.

Again, this isn’t as severe as Lost in Translation, but it’s critical that you know your audience and realize that what works in the US might not go over as well elsewhere – even when it’s a country that is presumably so culturally similar.  Instances like these illustrate a bit how cultural difference cannot be fully illustrated in a 2 dimensional graph.

OK So what does it mean?

Very often when I’m talking with customers who have had poor experiences offshoring, it wasn’t necessarily because they didn’t find the technical expertise they were looking for.  Rather they found that there were issues in communication, particularly when the projects started to hit the inevitable speed bumps.  Often times the exact problems they’re describing could be explained by this triangle, and looking how far the two cultures are from each other on the list.  Clearly, the two sides take different approaches to handling the key stress moments, which can be high risk for project success.

While, again, this is painting with broad strokes, it is a compelling argument and one that holds water with other companies who are offshoring here. It helps to explain to a new client why it might be a more comfortable experience offshoring to a place like the Czech Republic, if you’re a US or German based client, rather than one of the other popular offshoring locations.  It can also help, partially, to explain why it can be worth paying a premium over those other locations to source your project in this city.

At the end of the day, success with offshoring depends on a variety of factors which we’ll be looking at over the next few posts.