Do maps influence our language and how we judge our teammates?

Take a good look at the world map below? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it make you lose perspective?  Generally people feel distressed when they see this projection of the world map for the first time. Does Europe seem tiny and insignificant through this view?

Map 1: Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection, South Up

What about this one? What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you look at Map 2?

Map 2: Hobo Dyer Equal Area Projection, North Up

My first thought was, “Wow Africa is huge!”

Being brought up in the southern hemisphere, I have often felt that I am always most at ease when meeting others from the south. I have often queried that.  What is it about them that makes me feel so comfortable? We might come from different parts of the world entirely, Chile, South Africa, Australia and yet there is something that connects us. What could it be? Could it be related to how we were brought up viewing the world and therefore our position in this world?

Many of us were brought up with a skewed perspective of the world. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. At school we used the traditional, “Mercator” map below. As you can see, Melbourne is at the very bottom… you need to look hard to find it.

Map 3: Mercator projection

You’ll likely recognise the projection of  map 3 above, it’s the projection used by Google and other internet map providers[1]. It was created by the navigator Gerardus Mercator in 1569 as a guide to sailors to navigate the globe. Apparently it is still extremely useful for navigation purposes. However the world is a globe and it is very hard to project a globe onto a flat piece of paper, without distorting it. On the Mercator projection, you can see that Greenland looks bigger than Australia and Africa. In fact Australia is about three times the area of Greenland and Africa about 14 times the size of Greenland.

So let’s go back to map 1.

Map 1: Hobo Dyer Equal Projection, South Up

Ah… I love this map. Look at that, Melbourne uppermost centre… now I feel on top of the world:) There seems to be so much more water with this perspective. Of course this map is also not completely accurate as no flat surface can accurately project a globe, but this map does show the correct size of the countries.

Different perspectives offer different insights. How would our image of ourselves change if we were brought up looking at maps with our country always in the centre?

And yes, south can be up…  This “north is always up” perspective of the world does not only influence our image of ourselves (and others) but it also influences our language.  “I’m heading down south, I’m heading up north”. What about the negative connotations related to the south, such as, “My computer is only one month old, and it’s already gone south.” Why is south negative? Is it because we always look at maps that depict south to be at the bottom, and the bottom of the earth is not a pleasant place to be? In the Catholic Middle Ages of course the bottom of the earth referred to hell and evil.

So what do maps have to do with High-Performing Culturally Diverse Teams? We should never underestimate how important it is when working with people of other backgrounds to take the time to look at every situation through their perspective. I realise that statement can seem banal, but the way each one of us views the world, influences the way we see ourselves and the way we perceive (and probably judge) others in relation to that. This in turn impacts the way we behave and communicate with them. Do we speak in a patronising way when we speak to a person who comes from a country that on our map view seems insignificant? Are we more confident when communicating with people whom we perceive as being similar to us according to our map view?  Is there a natural connection or bond that allows us to be ourselves and show more confidence when interacting with these people? Where we position ourselves is central to how we view others and therefore how we behave, communicate and are accepted, or not, by others.

How do you feel your view of the world has influenced your communication and image of yourself?

[1] “The Mercator Projection was originally designed for nautical navigation by keeping lines of latitude perpendicular to lines of longitude. Land areas are distorted and the distortion increases nearer the poles, making countries in very low or very high latitudes look bigger than they really are.” Source: www.philmikejones.me & “Seeing Through Maps”, Wood, Kaiser and Abrahams, 2006 by ODT.

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