The Joy of Gnarly Cross-Cultural Gigs and Reducing Secret Meetings

The client approached me for help. Productivity was down, tensions were high, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived by the locals as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture. Same old story.

This time I really did have my work cut out for me. More accurately, the client’s staff had their work cut out for them. But it was too early to break the news that outside consultants can’t solve a company’s internal problems, that my job is to help them better define their “current situation” so they can figure out for themselves how to best solve their own problems. This explanation would come soon enough. For now I would tread lightly and work on educating both sides to understand the deeper causes of their intercultural struggles.

The endgame in my workshops is to get both sides talking to each other without all the accumulated misunderstandings and emotions muddying the waters. It’s kind of like marriage counseling, just without the marriage part.

My approach is a bit unconventional but there’s a method to my madness. I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by educating American and Japanese staffs on each others’ cultures separately, then bring them together for a joint session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. It’s never easy.

At the beginning of each separate session I have participants make a list of what they like about working with the other culture, and also what drives them crazy. As you might expect, the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “like” lists, a statement about human nature for sure. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings, and cultural ramifications of the listed comments. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, both lists are translated so both sides clearly understand what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program ten years ago. Happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it isn’t a love-fest either. It’s like incrementally turning a battleship around in the water with no single definitive turning point.

In my world, every workshop takes on a life of its own, so no paint-by-the-numbers magic. Lots of improvisation but it starts with education. Then I build on that foundation with humor, facilitated dialogue, self-reflection and structured brainstorming on improving relationships. But if I have a “go-to” technique it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the joint sessions. Indeed, cross-cultural interactions are ripe with humor, but only if you’re paying attention and seize those opportunities. Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once facilitated a joint session between Japanese and Americans in which the Americans had complained (as they always do) that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying they were intentionally withholding information from the Americans. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese by surprise. They simply took for granted that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decision-making was supposed to happen.

In the course of the training the American participants learned that that these private meetings weren’t aimed at shutting out the Americans, that their Japanese counterparts in fact routinely held small private meetings off-line even in their own country when working only with fellow Japanese. This revelation went a long way in placating the American staff.

At the end of the session, after the Japanese had thoroughly reflected on comments made by American counterparts, the Japanese managers addressed the “secret meeting” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their off-line meetings, they defaulted to the “secret meeting” description. With a straight face, one of the Japanese managers faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many ‘secret meetings.’ So our corrective action will be to reduce the number of secret meetings!”

To the Japanese presenter’s utter surprise, the Americans burst out laughing. They understood from context what he was trying to say. But try, if you will now, to imagine if context had not been provide upfront: it could have easily been a communication disaster!

The Battleship Does a U-Turn

Admittedly, this particular workshop was a tougher nut to crack than most I had administered in the past. In the initial American session the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the problem.

The Japanese session was a bit easier, although they were shocked to hear just how much resentment had built up with American counterparts.

Then in the final joint session the battleship did an unexpected and sudden U-turn. After hearing numerous comments from the American staff that they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the top Japanese executive present asked me to interpret. Here’s what he said:

“I suspect that I am guilty of offending you, and for that I want to offer my sincere apology. We Japanese come from a tiny-island country with no natural resources. America has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention to insult or belittle you. We will do our best moving forward to change that perception, and would like very much to work together. We are on the same team, have the same goals, and want to work together as one team.”

I could almost hear the tension escaping from the room. The Americans immediately softened, it was written all over their faces.

The rest of the session was fun, engaging and productive. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they would all work harder to communicate, cooperate, even socialize outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up, and keep the lines of communication open.

Postscript

At the end of all my sessions I get a “report card” from each participant, ranking the effectiveness of the training on a scale of one to five (one being the worst, five the best). Also included is a comments section. This session yielded a 4.5 average ranking, a score to be proud of for sure. But two comments really stuck with me: in both cases, the participants said that they had low expectations coming into the training. Both said they were “very surprised” at how effective the training was, and thanked me for administering the workshop.

Nothing beats turning a battleship around in the water, turning conflict into harmony, and connecting cultures. Can’t wait for my next gnarly gig.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


kiwala'o

It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Musical Chairs on a Rush-Hour Train: Connecting Cultures Through Storytelling

rakugoka

“If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”

–Jonathan Gottschall

I come from a family of storytellers—parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them—it’s in our Irish blood. My favorite childhood story was dad’s annual Christmas-Eve yarn about how our grandfather saved Santa’s life. Dad’s narrative had all the classic elements of a compelling story: good guy, bad guy, problem, climax, and resolution.

The good guy of course was grandpa. The bad guy was grandpa’s crazy next-door neighbor Seamus O’Toole who, one fateful Christmas morning, took umbrage with Santa “breaking into his house.” As grandpa was getting home from Midnight Mass he heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from inside his neighbor’s house. He dashed in only to find Seamus choking poor Santa! Grandpa proceeded to pull him off Santa and a fight ensued. Of course our hero prevailed, Seamus was subdued, and when Santa regained his wits he was so appreciative that he promised “from now on forever and ever, I will always bring presents to the children in the Sullivan family!” And as sure as the sun rises, the next morning we’d wake up with lots of presents under the Christmas tree, proof that dad was telling the truth.

How can anyone not love such a convoluted load of blarney? We ate it up.

This load of blarney is brought to you by Culture, where value lessons get wrapped in wonderful stories. The lessons of dad’s Santa story were unspoken but crystal clear: help people in need, be on the side of good, take action when you must, be proud of your pedigree.

This is the beauty of story: the good ones stick in your head right along with their accompanying value lessons, just as the Santa story is emblazoned in my memory fifty years later.

Long before humans were writing books, stories were told and passed down from generation to generation orally. Folks gathered around the hearth with family, friends, and neighbors, and listened to elders, shamans and raconteurs lay down their rap. Stories were about religion, entertainment, social interaction, and education. Today we’ll focus on the educational dimension of stories, specifically the role of stories in the cross-cultural field. First some background for context.

What’s In a Story?

Psychologist Keith Oatley calls stories “the flight simulators of human social life.” Jonathan Gottschall explains why in his book The Storytelling Animal:

…we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kind of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

The relevance of storytelling to my situation is that one of life’s most pressing problems, indeed something “crucial to our success as a species,” is the challenge humans face connecting with other cultures. And as fate would have it, this is what I do for a living.

So many ways to skin the cross-cultural cat, but it makes good sense to use stories—both real and fictitious—in imparting cross-cultural knowledge and skills to anyone with the will to learn. Real stories for lecture, fiction for role play if it works. Whatever the context and application, stories rock it in any lecture or workshop.

And what does every story have? Conflict of course. Remember all those Grimm tales we were told as kids? Gottschall itemizes the carnage for us:

…children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds)…”

If, as author Charles Baxter says, Hell is indeed “story-friendly,” then so it goes for cultures that collide. If you’re paying attention you won’t need fiction, as the cross-culture reality provides ample conflict, problems, humor, even horror. And whatever the outcome of any cross-cultural encounter, you’ve always got your story as a takeaway.

So why didn’t my anthropology teachers tell stories? Or was I not listening? All I remember are models, theories, graphs, charts, psychological references and lots of jargon to obfuscate simple human interactions. When stories were told they were stripped down and clinical in nature. It was painful to learn that way, and as a teacher I never wanted to subject others to that pain. Storytelling mitigates the pain.

Here’s a story I might tell in my seminars.

Musical Chairs

Shortly after arriving in Japan some thirty-seven years ago I was blown away by the kindness, attentiveness and hospitality of the Japanese. They were so gracious, so generous, sharing their food and drink and knowledge, even inviting me into their homes where they treated me like royalty. And I carried this gentle, caring image of the Japanese in my head until precisely the first time I boarded a rush-hour train in Tokyo.

The memory is still vivid. I was standing in line on the platform waiting for the Odakyu train to dead-end at Shinjuku station. The train eased its way in and stopped just short of the bumper. The doors remained closed on our side of the train, but slid open on the other side for the incoming passengers to file out. (And no, you’re not allowed to enter the open doors on the other side, you’ll get scolded if you try–but don’t ask how I know that.)

So there I was, standing quietly in line, thinking how much I loved the gentle, caring, hospitable Japanese people, when suddenly the doors on our side of the train opened and all hell broke loose. Little old ladies and pregnant women were shoved aside as blue-suited men, high-heeled office ladies and rabid students battled for seats. It was musical chairs played by people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and my mind was completely blown. I would soon learn that this wasn’t an aberration, as the same scenario played itself out again and again on rush-hour trains all over Tokyo everyday.

And this seeming contradiction in Japanese behavior dogged me. Were my Japanese hosts gentle, polite and attentive? Or cold-hearted scrooges who would deny a little old lady a seat on the train?

Fast forward several years when, in a flash of enlightenment, it all started making sense. I was a college student on my way home from campus, and had just boarded the very same Odakyu train in Shinjuku station. The same scenario unfolded: doors open, hell breaks loose, musical chairs, watch out grandma!

As a Westerner I’m not culturally programmed to fight for a seat under these conditions. So I slid into my favorite spot near the rear door, where I could lean against the train bulkhead, the perfect place to practice writing Japanese kanji on my scratch pad.

The moment of enlightenment hit when I happened to look up and see a blue-suited Japanese salaryman who had been particularly aggressive at getting his seat, sitting against the window reading the newspaper. As he turned the page he glanced up, and immediately realized that he knew the man standing in front of him, also a blue-suited salaryman. It was obvious there was a connection because the seated man immediately offered his seat to the standing man, insisting he take it. The standing man declined. The seated man, now in a half-sitting-half-bowing position, insisted again. The exchange continued–insist, decline, insist, decline, and lasted just long enough for me to consider sliding into the man’s seat myself. (Only in my imagination.) In the end, the half-seated man apologized for keeping his seat, sat back down, and harmony was restored to the universe.

And that’s when it hit me. The seated man had just out-dueled a little old lady for his seat, and now he was offering it to someone who needed it the least, a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. The more I thought about why this had just happened, the more I realized how rich the spectacle was in cultural meaning.

Cultural Lessons from the Rush Hour Train

It’s generally accepted in Japan that strangers on a train fight for seats, and everyone implicitly agrees on the rules so aggressive behavior is tolerated, even encouraged. Fair enough. But as soon as an acquaintance, friend or family member steps into the picture, inner-group rules kick in.

The sudden transformation of behavior that took place before my eyes on the train that fateful day was a story that stuck in my head: the man went from aggressive rugby brute to humble Confucian gentleman in mere seconds. This is a great example of what Takie Sugiyama Lebra refers to as “situation ethics,” not unusual in Confucian cultures where one’s duties and obligations are dictated by one’s situation in relation to others. Hence, universal rules of behavior don’t apply, and equal treatment is promised to no one. It also points to the importance of “inner versus outer” group behavior in Japan. Outside the confines of one’s inner group, rules for human interactions are minimal; but inside the group it’s a pressure cooker with strict protocol that’s heavy on duty and obligation.

In contrast Western culture has a tradition of absolute rules that apply to everyone equally, in principle if not in reality. And it makes perfect sense. Western culture is built on a Christian tradition that teaches we are all equal and under the moral scrutiny of an omnipotent, omnipresent God who watches us twenty-four-seven. That’s some heavy pressure on the individual when you think about it.

Applying this assumption to the rush hour train, God (and by logical extension, Western culture) expects strong, healthy young people to offer their seats to all pregnant ladies, the elderly, and the less fortunate–whether or not a relationship exists–because Christian morality is framed in universal laws not by “who you know.”

Many Westerners who claim no religion also behave according to universal principles. Whether they realize it our not, their behavior is rooted in these kinds of universal concepts set forth long ago in the Old Testament.

I’d be remiss not to mention here that it’s unfair to paint the Japanese as a culture that denies the elderly seats on a train. “Silver Seats” designated specifically for senior citizens are provided in each train car, although they surely need to be expanded to accommodate Japan’s growing senior-citizen demographic. I’ve also seen compassionate Japanese people offer their seats to the elderly. But looking back it still surprises me (as an outsider) how often it didn’t happen.

And as one digs deeper into the concept of situation ethics, there’s clearly more to teach on the impact of Confucianism on Japanese culture, including the concept of filial piety and the “rule-of man-over-rule-of-law” mentality that puts family and friends even before a government-issued edict.

The point of telling my musical chairs’ story is to illustrate how a story can give meaning and context to a discussion as abstract as ethics and behavior. Stories breathe life into abstractions by connecting them to the real world. In concrete terms the story above suggests how situation ethics might manifest in real life, and invites reflection on how one might adapt to that reality. Discussions can be interesting.

The versatility and power of stories make them applicable to any cross-cultural abstraction imaginable, from collectivism to power distance to empiricism to high and low context cultures. So many stories to tell.

Rockin’ It with Stories

My favorite teachers growing up were storytellers. They engaged me, entertained me, and wove in lessons that stayed with me. But just as important as the knowledge they imparted, their passion and storytelling style inspired me to seek out knowledge on my own. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Sadly we don’t have enough storytellers in the educational field today, and I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the Aristotelian structure we imposed on our learning institutions? Did we suck the joy out of learning to make it rational and scientific?

Nor do we have enough storytellers in the cross-cultural field and it’s a shame. So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them all, so many people who could use the knowledge. So I tell stories. And invite others to share their stories too.

For a related article, check out A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

American Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

imgres

A couple months ago I went shopping for new car insurance. Got a quote from a reputable company that turned out to be cheaper than my incumbent insurer. So I made the switch.

Fast-forward to last week when my new agent informed me my premium was going up because, according to their underwriters, my traffic abstract indicated “two recent speeding tickets,” the last one a year ago, the prior one three months before that.

This was news to me. I clearly remembered getting one ticket in the recent past, but couldn’t for the life of me recall two. My initial reaction was to question my sanity. Was I getting so forgetful in my old age that I wouldn’t remember a speeding ticket? I racked my brain but was drawing blanks.

So I shot an email to said agent asking for confirmation that the abstract was indeed correct. Without checking he assured me that the underwriters were “very accurate with their research,” and that I must’ve forgotten, end of story.

I’m embarrassed to admit that he almost convinced me I was senile. And I probably would’ve let the whole thing slide had I not glimpsed the revised quote showing an 80% increase in my premiums!

Needless to say, this was enough to make me reconsider my premature-senility theory, and further scrutinize the traffic abstract. Turns out the first speeding ticket was issued on October 16th 2012, the second on January 1st 2013. So I pulled out my trusty checkbook ledger and quickly found a record of payment to the county court for the first violation, case number and all. So far so good.

But it was the January 1st ticket that was bugging me. One, because I would’ve absolutely remembered getting a speeding ticket on the first day of the year, and two, there was no record of me ever having paid it. So either the ticket never happened or….I forgot about it, neglected to pay it, in which case the police would’ve issued a warrant for my arrest. This would definitely be on record. It wasn’t.

Emboldened, I sent another email to my agent challenging the second ticket on the grounds stated in the previous paragraph. Here’s how he responded:

Hi Tim, I have some good news for you. The second speeding ticket is one and the same as the ticket on 10/16/2012. Evidently, when we initially did the quote that was the best guess estimate. The underwriters took the 1/1/13 date as an additional ticket.

As you can see when mistakes are made in my culture, rather than apologizing, customer service folks default to the positive spin. Absent was an awareness on the agent’s part that he wasted my time, absent was any concern about my fragile memory, absent was any hint of regret that they made a mistake. Instead, he had “good news” for me.

The late and great George Carlin would call this response “high quality manufactured bullshit.” As a former salesman who once made a living in corporate America’s customer-service spin zone, I can vouch that Carlin’s description is spot on.

Now compare my agent’s happy spin to this story, as told by a dear old American friend who lived in Japan for fifteen years.

One of my adult (Japanese) students back in the late 80′s worked for Hitachi. I just so happened to have a Hitachi VCR that stopped working for no apparent reason. I made the “mistake” of mentioning it to him one evening after class and wanted to know where I could get it repaired. Well, you’d think I blamed him for it not working, as I was totally unprepared for what ensued.

He immediately apologized profusely for the defective product and insisted on taking it to his factory where he worked to have it fixed. I balked, but he continued his apologizing and practically demanded that I turn it over to him which I did. To top it off, he returned to my house about a half hour later with his own VCR for me to use so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced while mine was being repaired!

How’s that for customer service? An employee apologizing for his entire firm and personally taking the product to the factory to have it repaired! Would, or could that ever happen in the US? I think not.

My VCR was personally returned to me about a week later with more apologies along with a 10 pack of blank cassettes, courtesy of the company, for a “defective” product!

In fairness the Japanese apology is not always sincere. But at least they pretend to care, and usually do the right thing.

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t expect Americans to behave like the Japanese. What I did expect in this instance was for my agent to preface his words with a simple “I’m so sorry for the misunderstanding, here’s how the mix up occurred and here’s how we’ll rectify the matter.”

Admittedly I’ve been spoiled by Japan’s excellent customer service. But regardless of culture, is a simple apology too much to ask for?

For more on how culture drives customer service in Japan, check out Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Was Einstein Completely Cuckoo?

albert-einstein1

“Einstein is completely cuckoo!”J. Robert Oppenheimer

I’m not a big reader of biographies but just wrapped up Einstein, His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. A friend recommended it, it was on kindle, so I took a chance and downloaded it, albeit with some doubts: Would the life of history’s most famous genius hold my attention?

What nudged me into buying it is the guru-like mystique surrounding Einstein’s persona (if only in my imagination). What fueled my curiosity is that I did not understand Einstein at all, and couldn’t for the life of me imagine what all the fuss was about. I mean, what the hell does e=mc² mean anyway?

Happy to report I wasn’t disappointed. To my surprise and delight Isaacson hooked me from page one. He managed to take a cryptic, highly technical subject inherent in covering Einstein’s life and work, and make it accessible and interesting, even to a humanities-majoring monkey like me, no small feat.

On the lighter side, Einstein is packed with great quotes and wonderful anecdotes, some profound some profane. A couple tidbits:

When Einstein uttered to quantum physicist Niels Bohr his oft quoted “God doesn’t play dice!” an annoyed Bohr shot back, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”

And did you know Einstein was a chick magnet who loved the ladies? He even had a fling with married Russian spy Margarita Konenkova. (By all accounts he was clueless that she was a spy, a claim that fits his image as the bumbling, naive absent-minded professor.)

Einstein’s scientific contribution to the world is old news, of course. But Isaacson keeps it fresh, highlighting, for example, Einstein’s profound accomplishments over just a two-year period (from 1915 to 1917) when “he generalized relativity, found the field equations for gravity, found a physical explanation for light quanta, hinted at how the quanta involved probability rather than certainty, and came up with a concept for the structure of the universe as a whole. From the smallest thing conceivable, the quantum, to the largest, the cosmos itself, Einstein had proven a master.”

That’s heady stuff, awe-inspiring if you ponder what it means.

But the non-scientific dimensions of Einstein’s life are just as interesting. Einstein wasn’t just a scientist. He was a philosopher, rebellious contrarian, artistic visionary, thinker in images, and champion of the underdog. He slept in the nude, married his cousin, cavorted with Charlie Chaplain, wore shoes without socks, was skeptical of psychoanalysis and a self-proclaimed “deeply religious nonbeliever.” He was even an honorary member of a plumber’s union! He amused himself playing violin with likeminded musicians and discussing high-minded ideas with friends, passions fueled by strong coffee and stinky cigars. Just like the rest of us, Einstein was a flawed human being with vices and blind spots and weaknesses and contradictions.

He was also the first scientist with rock-star fame, and a profound shaper of culture.

Isaacson explains the cultural shift that Einstein was part of:

“There are historical moments when an alignment of forces causes a shift in human outlook. It happened to art and philosophy and science at the beginning of the Renaissance, and again at the beginning of the Enlightenment. Now, in the early twentieth century, modernism was born by the breaking of the old strictures and verities. A spontaneous combustion occurred that included the works of Einstein, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Joyce, Eliot, Proust, Diaghilev, Freud, Wittgenstein, and dozens of other path-breakers who seemed to break the bonds of classical thinking.”

Indeed Einstein’s theory of relativity had a huge cultural impact on artists, thinkers and all modern monkeys, even those of us who still don’t quite understand it.

Was Einstein completely cuckoo? It depends on how you define cuckoo. He certainly was a quirky, Bohemian, iconoclastic rebel who questioned authority along with all the traditional wisdom the authorities embraced. That was a big part of his genius. Some people might call that cuckoo.

After reading this book I concur with Oppenheimer that Einstein was a bit cuckoo. But I say it with affection and admiration. Hope that makes sense.

And hope you read the book.

But for the majority of readers with absolutely no intention of reading Einstein, in future posts we’ll examine his human side, sense of humor, musings on God, atheists, politics, nationalism, America, fame, uncertainty, morality and more.

Source material: Einstein, His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo Jumbo

That’s how you know you’re within a walled city, the jargon. They’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the world and are speaking a jargon only they can really understand.” –Robert Pirsig

The first anthropology book that didn’t put me to sleep was Takie Sugiyama Lebra’s Japanese Patterns of Behavior. At the time I had been in Japan over four years and had a reasonable grasp of spoken Japanese. But I was still confused about what I perceived as contradictory behavior by my Japanese hosts. To wit:

How could they be so polite in social interactions then turn into maniacs on the train? Why so serious and reserved at work then hammered and goofy at the karaoke bar? How could they be modern and scientific, and yet so beholden to ancient superstitions and rituals? What would make them warm and caring towards some people, but cold and distant toward others? And why so vague in their routine communication style but no qualms about bluntly pointing out you’ve gained a few pounds?

To Dr. Lebra’s credit, her book singlehandedly took four years of accumulated confusion and sorted most of it out in a single reading. Lightbulbs clicked on with every turn of the page, and the antics of my Japanese hosts suddenly started making sense. It was a breakthrough book for sure, and I’m thankful to Dr. Lebra for the burst of enlightenment.

But man did she make me wade through some dry, academic mumbo jumbo to get to the Promised Land. Had I not been in Japan at the time—had I not had a vested interest in figuring out my Japanese hosts’ behavior—it’s doubtful I’d have made it past the first page. But don’t believe me, read this snippet and judge for yourself:

Social interaction or relationships can best be analyzed by singling out the central actor then identifying his social object. I shall call the central actor “Ego” and his social object “Alter,” both terms being capitalized to signify their social emphasis as distinct from their psychological implications… Alter, who is the main object of preoccupation for the Japanese Ego, may be in regular contact with Ego or may be inaccessible except on special occasion and thus only recalled from memory. Alter may be a single person or a group; Alter and Ego may be of equal standing or hierarchically graded; their relationship may be lifelong or only transient, a desirable one Ego wants to maintain or an undesirable one from which Ego wishes to extricate himself. We can think of many other variations, yet they are all identical with respect to social preoccupation.” (Takie Sugiyama Lebra)

My brain hurts reading this even thirty years later. There must be a simpler way to convey the same message in plain English—or plain any language—preferably with a story or anecdote to breathe some life into it.

As cryptic as Lebra’s style is, at least her subject matter had enough juice to keep me going til the end. But as a friend once quipped after reading it, “You sometimes wonder if she’s talking about people or specimens.”

But this is not about Dr. Lebra—it’s about the mumbo jumbo in all the literature of cultural anthropology. Check out this gem from the first anthropology book that actually did put me to sleep, “Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction”:

In studies of classification, both in developmental and cross-cultural psychology, a good deal of interest has centered on two aspects of the subject’s performance: (1) the particular attribute the subject uses as the criterion of similarity (this is comparable to interest in the stimulus dimension in perceptual preference studies), and (2) whether or not he uses a single attribute consistently as the basis for groupings. Findings with respect to these questions have provided much of the empirical foundation for theories of cognitive development that stress progression from a kind of thinking that is concrete and context-bound to thinking that is abstract and rule-governed.”

I get the point but need a drink now! Can’t imagine anyone outside the academic walls of cultural anthropology exercising their freewill to read this. And if the average Joes in our global world don’t get this knowledge—if it’s only intended for the eyes and ears of other mumbo-jumbo-speaking academics—then really, what good is it?

Indeed anthropology has worked hard to shroud itself in complexity, aided by the use of a cryptic language developed and spoken only by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and folks who just want to sound smart. And it begs the question, why would that be?

Why All the Anthropo-Mumbo-Jumbo?

I blame Franz Boas, the immortalized “father of American anthropology,” for trying to make cultural anthropology into a Victorian science, when it was, is, and always will be, the subjective study of humans by humans.

Boas’ bias toward science makes perfect sense in light of his background. A product of the 19th century, he was trained in mathematics and received his doctorate in physics in Germany at a time when scientists were flirting with rock star status. (Einstein the most famous of them all.) Boas would go on to teach at Columbia University, and in 1899 establish the very first Anthropology Ph.D. Program in the U.S.

One of Boas’ many claims to fame was that he pioneered a method of anthropological investigation modeled after the hard sciences. Philosopher Robert Pirsig explains the problem with casting anthropology as a science:

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages. The result has been theoretical chaos.”

Science or no science, the reality is that anthropology aspired—and still aspiresto be a science, which implies there was doubt from the beginning about its scientific legitimacy. After all, physics and biology don’t aspire to be a science, everyone knows they just are. But poor, insecure anthropology, craving the legitimacy of science from its modern inception, created a language of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo that gave rise to the dry, lifeless, cryptic literature anthropology students are forced to read today. And we all suffer for it.

My issues with the mumbo jumbo aside, Boas deserves his props for the enduring contribution he made to cultural anthropology in very positive ways. His big claim to fame was successfully applying scientific methods to debunking “scientific racism,” the application of what was purportedly science, to classifying people according to race, then ranking them up accordingly. Boas rejected outright the idea of biological predispositions and countered with the theory that social learning was the primary driver of differences amongst the various cultures of the world. His theory stuck, and it’s a cornerstone of modern anthropology today.

We can also thank Boas for groundbreaking research that led to the anthropological principle of “cultural relativism,” the belief that civilization is, in Boas’ own words, “not something absolute, but…relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” This implies that cultures cannot be ranked objectively, as each human observer perceives the world through the lens of his or her respective culture and makes subjective judgments accordingly (interestingly a claim in itself that contradicts the notion of anthropology as a science).

So acknowledging that there’s lots to love about Boas and his impact on anthropology, just imagine how much cooler it’d be without the jargon.

In fairness to Boas he had plenty of accomplices in creating and advancing the language of anthropology, namely, his student minions Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Alfred Kroeber. Collectively they took their mentor’s staunch commitment to objectivity, science and all its accompanying scientific jargon, and raised it to new heights of inscrutability.

So we’ve identified our key culprits, the creators of the jargon-filled gobblygook language of anthropology that endures today. At its core is a yearning by an insecure field of study for the same legitimacy commanded by the traditional sciences. Those of us inside the walls of anthropology who continue using the language of mumbo-mumbo, are complicit in scaring off the very people who could use the knowledge the most.

Earning Our Keep

If I were king I’d ban all mumbo jumbo, gobblygook and balderdash from anthropology, and require all my subjects to use simple, clear language in all their communications.

Unfortunately the odds of me being king of anything are about the same as the average Joe reading Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Not gonna happen. The writing style is just too intimidating.

It’s tough enough connecting cultures for a living. Folks in the cross-cultural field have the added chore of connecting the cryptic language of insecure academics with clients who need to communicate with living, breathing human beings. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. And this is where we earn our keep: spinning mumbo-jumbo into productive human connections.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?

TimKurKids

“Do you do marriage counseling?”

Her question came out of left field. I had just wrapped up a half-day seminar at a client’s on cultural differences between Japanese and Americans in the workplace, and now the only Japanese person in the class was asking me privately to offer counsel to her American husband. I laughed but she was dead serious. “My husband really needs this training.”

I never did pursue a marriage-counseling career, but our brief encounter got me wondering, Could I do it? At the risk of offending all the capable, professionally certified cross-cultural marriage counselors in the world, I think I could, certainly when Japanese and Americans were involved. Add my Japanese wife to the mix and our complementary skills would be ideally suited for such a calling.

Our credentials aren’t from academia, but we don’t play according to Hoyle anyway. We’re both college graduates, albeit with no formal training in psychology or counseling, no Doctorates, don’t even have a wretched Masters degree between us. But here’s what we’ve got: we know each other’s cultures intimately; we’ve been happily married for thirty years; we lived in each other’s countries, speak each other’s languages, ask good questions and listen. And if that’s not enough, we’re entertaining as hell. Did I mention we live in Hawaii? All we need are some clients now and we’re good to go.

Cross-Cultural Blues

My fantasy gig aside, it’s not like there isn’t a need to be filled here. Haven’t been able to track down any statistics on cross-cultural divorce rates, but a quick google search shows that cross-cultural marriage counselors actually do exist, evidence the need is there.

And it makes perfect sense. In our dynamic global world, more and more people are venturing abroad, leading to more people tying cross-cultural knots, leading to more cross-cultural knots needing to be untangled, sometimes even cut loose.

Let’s face it, marriage between people of the same culture is tough enough. Throw in a language barrier and a muddy cultural minefield littered with hidden value differences, and things get infinitely more complicated.

Sadly we know of too many broken marriages between Japanese and American couples. Just how many could’ve been saved with the right knowledge and guidance is anyone’s guess. Admittedly some couples should never have gotten married in the first place. But armed with the right knowledge, an emotionally mature, open-minded couple from different cultures has a good shot at creating a lasting partnership. But they’d have to go into it with open eyes and open hearts. It helps to have a sense of humor too.

What Couples Fight About

Amazing the silly stuff married couples fight about. An international couple gets all that and a bag of chips: she eats stinky fermented beans for breakfast, he wants an Egg McMuffin; he married for romantic love, she’s in it for a steady homemaking gig; he’s an old-school disciplinarian, her parents spoil the kids rotten; English is her second language, he speaks English only and struggles enough with that; he thinks she understands everything he says, she understands only half; he loves a feisty debate, she nods her head to keep the peace—especially when she disagrees; he likes to playfully tease, she thinks he’s being mean; his parents are loud and judgmental, hers zing you with a passive-aggressive smile.

And this just scratches the surface. Throw in the crazy idiosyncrasies we all have, the potential fallout from religious differences, not to mention different cultural attitudes toward sex, money and rock-n-roll, and you’ve got a murky brew of marital juices to stew in.

Check Your Identity at the Border

On a heavier note, some folks living in their spouse’s homeland report “loss of personal identity.” Defining exactly what this means is a can of worms we won’t open today. For the sake of this discussion, reflect on how you might answer these questions:

Do you see yourself as an independent entity or fraction of society? Are you ranked in a pecking order or is everyone equal?

How does your culture expect you to behave? Is open debate the norm? Or is feigned agreement encouraged in the name of harmony?

Are male and female roles clearly defined in your spouse’s country? Are females expected to show deference? If you’re a woman, how would you choose to deal with that reality?

And what about self worth? Is it measured by “self-actualization”? Accumulation of money? Status? Approval by the collective? Motherhood? Fatherhood? Career? Other?

And finally, how do you tell right from wrong? Is it always good to tell the truth? Are polite lies expected and encouraged in the name of social harmony? Does the “real you” fight for that seat on the train, or offer it to an elderly lady?

The list goes on but you get the gist. It shouldn’t surprise that lonely spouses living abroad—regardless of gender–might feel a loss of identity. It’s not a stretch to imagine a strong, independent female from a Western country being thrust into a male-dominated culture and feeling smothered. Or the other way–a traditional Asian woman going West.

I was in a different situation and felt anything but smothered. Japan was liberating for me. And yet, over the course of ten years I wrestled with my own kind of identity issues, specifically, the challenge of sorting out which part of me was American, which part had taken on Japanese-like qualities, and which part was just me. It took an eventual move back to the motherland to “rediscover” myself. What I learned was that I never “lost” anything, certainly not my identity. What happened was my identity had expanded with the infusion of Japanese culture into my life. No regrets. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Ignorance, the Silent Killer

The most dangerous scenario in the artful dance of communication happens when both partners assume they are communicating when in fact they are not. This scenario naturally begets confusion. One symptom is the tendency of one or both parties to assign bad intentions to the other party, even when everyone’s heart is in the right place. It happens more than you think. A great example is how Japanese, who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of English, might respond to a negatively stated question such as, “Don’t you love me?”

The Japanese partner, intending to say “Yes I love you,” might respond with “no,” meaning, “No, it’s not true that I do not love you.” Conversely, a Japanese partner, intending to say “No I do NOT love you,” might respond with “yes,” meaning, “Yes that’s correct, I don’t love you.” How about that for getting your signals crossed?

Now imagine all the drama such a misunderstanding could create, and multiply it by all the other unforeseen language and culture gaps that camouflage our good intentions.

Such misunderstandings quickly escalate, and before you know it spouses are sparring—over something they may actually agree on. False perceptions define their reality, and love gets lost in the confusion.

And this really underscores the power of cross-cultural knowledge in international marriages. Only by bringing hidden differences to the surface can they be acknowledged, reflected on, and worked out. Without awareness of these differences, problems not only don’t get solved, they proliferate and fester.

Can Love Conquer Culture?

It might get you through the honeymoon stage, I’ll grant you that. But over time misunderstandings and false perceptions can sour even the sweetest love. When the honeymoon’s over, you either roll up your sleeves and start working at your marriage, or get pulled into a downward spiral fueled by mutual ignorance. We all know where that ends up.

To our credit and good fortune, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking in the courting stage. It helps that neither of us is shy, that we were willing to put in the time and effort to communicate, and that I had already lived in my wife’s country for seven years and had a good grasp of her language and culture. With that backdrop, here’s what was rolling around in my head before I popped the question.

What does “marriage” really mean in Japan versus my culture? Is love part of the deal? What roles would a married international couple assume? Would she be willing to marry me as an equal partner? Or would I have to be subservient!?

What are the positives of our respective cultures? What’s important to her? What’s important to me? Could she learn to love Egg McMuffins? Could I learn to eat smelly fermented beans for breakfast?

Where would we live? Do we both want kids? How many? How would we raise them? Would they speak one language or both? Would we indulge them or use tough-love? And what if we fail and they turn out like me?

What do we expect of ourselves and each other? What are the boundaries of trust? How to show respect? How to show affection? How to disagree? How to resolve disputes? Would I have to sleep on the couch sometimes? If so, will the couch be comfortable?

It all looks so neat and tidy when it’s written down like that. The reality is our conversations were unstructured, messy, a lot messier when we were drinking wine. But we made the time to talk, to share with each other how we had been raised, nurtured, disciplined, how our parents related to each other, and how it turned us into the confused young adults that we were…okay, that I was.

But even with thirty years of marital bliss under my belt, can’t help but think that some guidance and structured conversations would’ve prevented a couple wheels from being reinvented. If I could go back in time and counsel my young bachelor self, here’s what I’d say to me:

When you tease her she thinks you’re being mean. She’ll never get your American-guy sarcastic sense of humor so back off on the teasing.

Don’t let her do the dishes, she hates it and sucks at it. (I recently fired my wife from the dish-washing duties and reassigned them to yours truly. Had I known then how happy this would make her, I’d have done it thirty years ago.)

Read “The Anatomy of Peace” by Arbinger Group!” (The book wasn’t published until 2006 so I’d have to smuggle it into the time machine. But had I read it thirty years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have been a better husband and father.)

And if my Japanese wife could go back in time and counsel her young single self on marrying a foreign barbarian, what advice would she give?

Sign up for our Intercultural Marriage Retreat in Hawaii and we’ll talk about it. ;)

For more on cross-cultural marriages check out Samurai Wife: The Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013