Analogies: Understanding Culture Through Powerful Mental Models

You are a manager in a foreign culture. You look at everything through your cultural lens.

Workplace behaviors are strange. Your colleagues’ habits seem irrational.

You feel like a visitor at the zoo, a spectator observing everyone.

In actuality, you are in their habitat; not the other way around. You are the odd one out, behaving according to your “strange” cultural norms and values in their culture.

You are the monkey in the zoo.

This is an example of an analogy: a powerful image that enables you to adapt your mental model to the reality of your environment or situation.

Last week, we talked about German manager, Marie, and her struggle working in a French office.

It was an analogy – the French office is like a royal court – that assisted her in adapting her frame of interpretation.

Why do analogies work?

Because they familiarize unfamiliar situations, helping us form new mental models to confront the unknown.

Analogies Reshape Mental Models

Schemes, representations, and images form the mental models used to perceive and understand the world around us.

These are largely based on past experience, education, and training.

The mental models we’ve developed provide shortcuts in decision-making, allowing us to make decisions quickly and efficiently without necessarily having all the details at our fingertips.

Because we don’t have all the details, mental models abstract reality; they are biased. They make the real world more simplistic than it actually is.

Despite significant experience or education to back our mental models, at some point, they are usually wrong in one way or another.

What’s worse is mental models are deeply rooted and slow – if not impossible – to change.

Analogies, however, make that change easier.

By “tricking” our brains into seeing something that previously seemed concrete (office behaviors, for instance) in a new light (viewing French companies like royal courts), we are able to draw different connections and conclusions than our previous mental model allowed, thus arriving at new decisions that more adequately address the reality of the environment.

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Unknown social constructs are reshaped by analogies into a picture you can comprehend.

The fresh perspective from this corrected mental model will allow you to make more rational decisions relative to the social constructs of the culture.

There are, however, limits to analogies. Like anything, they aren’t perfect.

But a good analogy that accurately represents a cultural dynamic that doesn’t align with your own is always an improvement on the mental model you’ve brought with you from abroad.

Trying to fit another’s culture into your own is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

So, how do you create good analogies?

Next week, we’ll talk about how Geert Hofstede’s dimensions can help.