On the Power of Humor…Even When It’s Accidental


Just recently, I reconnected with a valued client in the U.S. And it jogged an old memory of a funny story relayed to me by an American participant in one of the seminars I conducted onsite. I’ll never forget it…

One of the client’s Japanese employees was stopped by the local police for a routine check for drunk drivers. The Japanese driver wasn’t drunk, but he had had a beer or two. The police officer instructed him to exit the car for a sobriety test. It’s important to note here that the Japanese man’s English was functional, but not perfect.

The officer instructed him to stand with his feet at shoulder width, close his eyes, tilt his head back, and touch his nose with both hands. Thinking he understood all the directions, the Japanese guy proceeded to do everything he was told, except, instead of trying to touch his own nose, he reached out—with eyes closed and hands flailing—and desperately tried to touch the officer’s nose. The policemen thought it was so funny that he let the guy go!

The story underscores the amazing power of humor—even when it happens by accident!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

When Humor Transcends Culture: A Bonding Moment of Laughter and Joy


Moments of laughter and joy can pop up when they are least expected. This is exactly what happened to my friends and me yesterday.

My (Japanese) wife and I went into town (Atami, Japan) to meet some new friends for lunch. While walking to the parking lot from the restaurant, our friends, who have never been to our house, asked us where we lived.

To set up the story, it’s important to know that our house is way up the mountain. We can’t actually see it from town, but we can narrow down the general area by pointing out visible buildings near us. So we stopped and pointed upwards toward the mountain while describing the closest landmarks. Well, before we realized it, a crowd of Japanese had gathered round to see what all the fuss was about, all staring at the mountain with us! One elderly man even stopped to stare at us with a total look of confusion on his face.

The fact that two out of five of us are gaijin (=foreigners) must have added to the intrigue. When we realized we had unwittingly assembled a crowd, we all burst out laughing. The poor Japanese bystanders walked away even more confused.

Why this is so funny, I haven’t a clue. But what I can tell you with certainty is that the humor transcended culture because all five of us couldn’t stop laughing! It was a bonding experience that, in a very tangible way, brought us closer to our new friends.

It’s these moments of joy that make life so precious, and I am thankful for all of them.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers!

Intercultural “Stack-Up Tolerances”


When I worked in the manufacturing industry, we quoted and designed our products based on specifications set forth in component drawings that we received from customers.

In analyzing a drawing, there is a phenomenon called “stack-up tolerances.” It refers to the worst-case maximum or minimum values of dimensions and tolerances in calculating the maximum/minimum distance (clearance or interference) between two features or parts. In some cases, the stack-up tolerances can translate into non-functional parts, even though technically they are produced within the given specification.

For non-technical readers, think of stack-up tolerances this way: Imaging your task is to build a 10-foot-high wall inside your house. Let’s suppose you purchased 12-inch blocks to accomplish the task. Let’s also assume that the design specifications for each block had a tolerance of plus or minus one inch in height (i.e. it can be as low as 11 inches or as high as 13 inches). Now imagine stacking up those blocks to build that wall. If the ceiling height is 10 feet, and you stack ten blocks that are all 13–inches in height, they would add up to 10 feet 10 inches (10 blocks x 13″) in height, which means the last block on top wouldn’t fit. Or conversely, if they were all 11 inches in height, you’d be short 10 inches, in which case there would be a 10-inch gap between the ceiling and the top of the wall. So even if the blocks were all technically within spec, it wouldn’t give you a functional wall. (Shout out to Grif for inspiring me to clarify this point!)

In bridging language gaps, I see a similar phenomenon. Even though a dictionary may tell you that two words or expressions mean the same thing (for example, management = kanri [管理]), there are slightly different meanings and nuances with each word uttered. The more words used, the more the gaps of understanding can “stack up.”

One key role of intercultural communication, as I see it, is to provide context and background to help minimize these “stack-up tolerance” gaps in language, since interpreters and translators don’t always have the luxury of providing badly needed context.

So my job, in essence, is helping people of different cultures minimize the stack-up tolerances not covered in straight-forward translation and interpretation.

Your thoughts?

Values Versus Stereotypes


A Japan-savvy friend once said, “Anything you can say about the Japanese, you can also say the opposite.”

Lots of truth in this statement. In the cross-cultural field, we talk a lot about value differences. Some people interpret the notion of a given culture “valuing” something as a form of stereotyping. But anyone who deals intimately with other cultures understands that it’s more nuanced than that—that it’s just a statement about tendencies, not absolutes. Indeed, it’s even more nuanced than that! Age, gender, regional differences, status within the group, career choice, situation, individual personality, etc. all feed into what (and how much) an individual “values” something at a given moment in time.

Here’s an example: the Japanese are generally said to be “indirect.” In some cases it’s true. However, many of my Japanese friends and colleagues can be *brutally* direct. My Japanese family and close friends have no qualms about saying, “Hey Tim, you got old since I last saw you!” Or, “Wow, you put on weight!” 🙂 I take no offense, as it’s indicative of the strength of our relationship.

I can think of many other examples, but this supports the point made in the 1st sentence of this post. Anyone have similar examples like this?

A Weirdly Shaped Peg Looking for a Hole to Fill


My career trajectory didn’t “shape me” to fit well into any existing professional categories. To my surprise, many others seem to be in the same boat. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

I was a cryptologist in the Navy who went on to study cultural anthropology and Japanese, then worked on a mixed-culture project team to start up a new Japanese factory, was subsequently hired by a U.S. company as a sales manager to develop business with Japanese transplants in the U.S., was later recruited by a Japanese company to work as a management/productivity consultant, and even ran an insert-molding factory for four years before eventually starting my own business as a cross-cultural business consultant.

Moral of my story: if you’re a weirdly shaped peg that doesn’t fit well into round or even square holes, you have to create your own hole to fill.

And here I am. 🙂


Halloween and My First Childhood Crush


Miss Walters, my 2nd Grade teacher, was my 1st childhood crush. My best guess is she was in her early twenties at the time. I, on the other hand, was a very confident seven going on eight. It’s amazing to think that even at such a young age I was already digging older women. The audacity of me believing that beautiful Miss Walters would ever entertain a romantic relationship with mini-me is indisputable proof that I was a certified goof. My confidence must have been off the charts!

Miss Walters’ memory was triggered by a recent discussion with my Japanese wife on how much Halloween has changed since we were kids. In recent years, we haven’t participated in or paid attention to Halloween festivities, although we’re not at all against the tradition. We simply don’t encounter trick-or-treaters these days. What have they done with all the children?

No doubt about it, trick-or-treating has changed over the years in both America and Japan, albeit in different ways. Back in my wife’s childhood years in Japan, Halloween wasn’t even on her radar, much less celebrated. Somehow the tradition seeped into Japan over the years, possibly brought back by families of the numerous Japanese salarymen stationed abroad over the last three decades, but that’s just a guess. In this crazy era of cosplay, it was bound to take root in Japan anyway, and so it did. If you don’t believe me, check out Tokyo’s Shibuya on October 31st.

The most striking difference about Halloween in the U.S. is the sheer number of kids then versus now. On the north side of Chicago in the 1960s and 70s, my neighborhood was swarming with boomer kids. In my trick-or-treating years—before I graduated to the insanity of attacking people with shaving cream and eggs—I was mostly driven by my competitive nature, and actually consuming the treats was an afterthought. Intent on winning a contest completely invented inside my head, I scoured the neighborhood for my bounty.

In those days, few if any trick-or-treating rules or restrictions applied, even to a clueless seven-year-old kid living in the big city. Indeed, the 1960s in Chicago (and probably the rest of the country) was the wild west of trick-or-treating.  Mom would get us dressed up, point us toward the door, and we were gone; she had no idea where we were headed and wouldn’t see us for the next several hours, well after dark. 

Just one block to our south was Elmdale Avenue, a narrow street lined with old brick apartment complexes. In my 7-year-old mind, it meant a high-density inventory of treats in just one tight city block, an extremely efficient way to stockpile my bounty. Even better, it was only a minute walk from my home. This was my secret go-to section of the neighborhood, my edge over unsuspecting competitors who relied on single-family residences for their treats. 

But alas, the treats played second fiddle to my primary motivation: this is where Miss Walters lived and I desperately wanted to see her. I don’t remember what was going through my mushy brain at the time or what I hoped to accomplish beyond scoring some candy. I only remember being hopelessly smitten.

For whatever reason, I knew which block my teacher lived on but not which apartment or even building she was in. This means I had to knock on every damn apartment door in every building on the block before I hit gold, admittedly not such a terrible burden since I’d be collecting candy along the way. I’m not proud of it, but pretty sure I was the world’s first trick-or-treating stalker.

That particular Halloween I chose a cool persona to dress up as, a secret-agent from my favorite TV show, Illya Kuryaken of Man from Uncle.  My costume was a tie, blazer, black turtleneck, and dark slacks with a bulky walkie-talkie tucked in my inner blazer pocket, an outfit I was sure would sweep Miss Walters off her feet.

After knocking on countless doors, somewhere in the middle of that block of apartment buildings, I finally struck gold. This would be my first hint that I just might be pissing in the wind.

Miss Walters surprised me by asking what my costume was supposed to be. (I thought it was self-evident!) She thanked me for coming and gave me more candy than I cared for. To my utter disappointment, she didn’t invite me in to cuddle over a glass of chocolate milk as I had hoped, which means I left with a heavy heart and equally heavy bag of candy. It was a devastating setback. I cheered myself up with the knowledge that I had an entire school year to win her over and a stockpile of candy to sustain me in the meantime. This mindset would set me up to learn that life wasn’t always fair.

One morning I showed up to class only to find a new teacher—whose name I still don’t remember—was sitting at Miss Walters’ desk. Let’s just say we got off on the wrong foot when this strange lady announced that Miss Walters was getting married, wouldn’t be coming back, and that she was her replacement. For the first time in my then short life, I understood why someone would consider shooting the messenger. I have resented Mrs-what’s-her-name ever since. 

With that, my unwavering confidence wavered and my childhood crush on Miss Walters came to a screeching halt. So traumatic was the experience that it took me until lunch time to recover, a jaded 7-year-old alone with his broken heart and baloney sandwich. By recess I was ready to move on with life.

After all these years I still wonder what happened to my beloved Miss Walters. If she’s still with us, she’s in her 80s. She was a sweet teacher who, through no fault of her own, captured my 7-year-old heart. Fifty-five years later, I still smile when I think about her.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Is Honne-Tatemae a Taboo Cross-Cultural Topic?


The Messy Job Interview

Almost twenty years ago I interviewed for a freelance position with a training company. The interviewer, a fellow American, was a capable, savvy interculturalist. We arranged to meet at her home office, a short train ride away from my home. She picked me up at the station in a nondescript two-door sedan that I’m pretty sure was a Toyota; what I remember for sure is that her car made a positive impression on me because it was devoid of pretense, and I took it as a good omen that we’d get along swimmingly. 

Then I got in her car.

It was filled to the brim with an assortment of candy wrappers, food containers, empty paper cups, notebooks, paperwork, and other miscellaneous items, all of which I pretended not to notice. After the initial shock wore off, I settled in and convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal, while part of me secretly admired her for unabashedly owning that mess.

Stating the obvious, she was in a power position, so in a practical sense her messiness didn’t matter; I was there to impress her, not her me.

To her credit, she apologized for the mess but absolutely didn’t mean it. I waved it off and said something like, “No worries, you should see my car,” a polite lie, equally insincere. It was not my place, nor was it to my benefit, to rock the boat. I needed work and this nice, messy lady was in a position to help me. Still, I couldn’t wait to see her office.

And it didn’t disappoint!


A dramatization of the interviewer’s desk based on a random internet stock photo.

Sitting eye-deep among towering skyscrapers of stacked papers, boxes, and books, we engaged in ritual chit-chat before getting to my pitch. To my surprise and delight, the messy ambiance of the room had a weirdly calming effect and it put me in a zone. With an American audience of one, I relaxed and told my story. The luck of the Irish was with me, and I impressed enough to graduate to the next phase of the interview, at which time my interviewer provided an overview of the company’s training material.

As she went through it, she urged me to hang my personal stories on the content and to “just be yourself.” This was music to my ears, as I am damn good at just being myself.

She also highlighted topics to avoid, the good old trifecta of workplace taboos: politics, religion, and sex. So far so good.

Then she said something I never expected to hear: “And you should never, ever discuss honne-tatemae because Americans will interpret it to mean that the Japanese are liars.”

I couldn’t have disagreed with her more, but that battle would remain in my head. There was no need to rock this boat either.

What Is Honne-Tatemae?

Anyone familiar with Japan has heard of honne-tatemae. For those who haven’t, it is a pairing of two Japanese words often translated as “one’s true feelings” (=honne) versus “the truth for public consumption” (=tatemae). This particular expression acknowledges and articulates an unwritten cultural rule in Japan that regulates what is appropriate to say in any given situation versus “one’s true feelings.” This expression is, in essence, an open admission by Japanese culture that people’s words and true feelings don’t always match. Shocking, I know.

A non-Japanese friend who lives in Japan says he can’t stand tatemae and believes it is unhealthy. I agree that too much tatemae is indeed unhealthy. But just for fun, let’s imagine the opposite extreme, a world completely devoid of tatemae, where people blurt out everything on their minds without thought or empathy for others’ feelings. That doesn’t sound at all healthy to me either.

Like most things in life, honne-tatemae is about balance and context. When socializing with good friends, the American in me prefers to keep tatemae to a minimum. On the other hand, in a public setting, tatemae can be a good thing if practiced judiciously. Another friend familiar with Japan says to think of tatemae as “diplomacy.” That’s as good a characterization as I’ve heard.

Personally, I find the frankness of my American compatriots refreshing, but I never lose sight of the fact that they too practice tatemae when it suits their purposes, even if they don’t want to admit it.

In my experience dealing with Japan for over four decades, more often than not, tatemae has been practiced with good intentions—to keep the harmony, put a positive spin on a bad situation, help someone avoid embarrassment, or protect a loved one. By implication, it also means that lots of roads have gotten paved to hell, but that goes for any culture.

Not everyone agrees with my take on honne-tatemae. Some might say it is too forgiving. Fair enough, each person’s take is highly subjective. For those who have a darker view of honne-tatemae, I would only remind them that no culture, certainly not Japan, has a monopoly on it. We all play the honne-tatemae game when the situation calls for it.

Whatever one’s take on the concept—positive, negative or neutral—understanding the dynamics of honne-tatemae is essential for effective communication with the Japanese, specifically for learning the all-important skill of “reading the air” and between the lines.

The irony of that fateful interview almost two decades ago is that the interviewer and interviewee, both Americans, had tatemae on full display while we danced around the endearing elephant in the room—the interviewer’s unabashed messiness. The dance came so naturally that we weren’t even conscious of it, evidence that honne-tatemae is alive and well in American culture—even if we pretend it isn’t.

Is Honne-Tatemae a Taboo Cross-Cultural Topic?

My clients are fully-grown adults. They deserve my respect. They deserve to have information that will enhance their ability to effectively communicate with Japanese friends, colleagues and loved ones. Professional educators in my field should know how to explain concepts like honne-tatemae without casting cross-cultural aspersions, and we should trust that clients will know what to do with that information.

By understanding the honne-tatemae dynamic, non-Japanese are better equipped to forge deeper bonds with Japanese counterparts and improve communication in the process. This is reason enough to put it on the table for discussion.

What do you think?


Copyright © 2019 Tim Sullivan