I got a message that our elderly neighbour wanted her spare key returning. I dug it out and crossed the road to see her. She is in her 90s, increasingly frail and it was very near the beginning of Lockdown 1. She opened the door, relying heavily on her walking stick. Given her age, I kept a good 2m apart. I spoke loudly.
“I’ve got your spare key here, I understand you want it back?”
“Well, you can never have too many spare keys!” she said.
I stood there. I didn’t know what to do. Did she want the spare key back or not?
I tried again.
“So do you want the key?”
Truthfully, I can’t quite remember her response the second time, I was feeling so confused. It was probably something like “Well, if you don’t mind.”
All I know is that I still didn’t know what she wanted but decided to assume she did want the key. From 2m, I threw it towards her, hoping she could catch. Fortunately, it landed on a shelf which she could reach from standing up.
On reflection, my neighbour was being polite. Her cultural frame of reference, given her age and background, was not to impose, sound pushy or demanding.
In contrast, my frame of reference thought it was helpful to be explicit and clear. The more subtle my neighbour was, the more I got confused and more I tried to be even more clear. It didn’t seem to improve things though.
This exchange with my neighbour reminded me of research conducted by Erin Myer, author of the book “The Culture Map”; where she decodes how people think, lead and gets things done across cultures.
In the example in the beginning of this eleven minute video, Erin talks about the cultural difference she experienced as an American asking a Japanese audience for questions at the end of her talk. Until she was tutored by a Japanese colleague to look for a “shine in their eyes”, to see the air around the situation, there were none.
Maybe I could have done more of this with my neighbour. I could have taken a moment to consider the whole situation, not just the words. The context of a pandemic, her body language and behaviour as well as what she actually said.
To me, my neighbour’s style was subtle, you had to hunt for the meaning. (In her video, Erin Meyer calls this high context.)
Maybe she could have helped me a little more too. My neighbour could have stepped a little beyond her cultural norm of the diffidence and ambiguity that can come with being polite. She could have chosen language that would have been a little more explicit and clear to me.
For me, direct communication is easier to understand. For me this is more clear. For others though, it might be too clear!! (In her video, Eric Meyer calls this low context.)
Given our age difference, it’s much more reasonable to ask me to adjust, not her.
If we think of all our interactions with others, in the supermarket, on public transport, walking along the street or in the workplace, how can we each put this first dimension of Erin Meyer’s Culture Map – what I call subtle or clear communication – to good use?
Communication is complicated. Often we are building trust in relationships, as well as recognising our different communication styles.
Yet by being aware of how we can be different from each other, and the impact this can have on how our communication is received, we can become better, quicker and more effective problem solvers, building the relationship together.
How can you put this idea into practice in your key relationships?
Gill How loves to work internationally with managers, executives and professionals to help them to evolve, stretch and grow their leadership capability. She is a Master Executive Coach and innovative Leadership Developer. If she can help you in developing the potential of women and men in your organisation, contact her at
The next programme of our Women in Transport Leadership Programme, Lead, starts in April. Here is what our recently promoted participant, Karen Cooper, now Director of Organisational Development at Blackpool Transport Services, has to say:
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