A Weirdly Shaped Peg Looking for a Hole to Fill

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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

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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?

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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!

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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

Is the Suit Going the Way of the Dodo Bird?

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I despise suits. Wore them to hundreds of seminars over the last 20 years. But as I age, my inner curmudgeon has slowly emerged, and I care less and less about playing that game. Happy to say, I haven’t worn a suit in 3 years.

Recently, I had the good fortune to meet some wonderful new LinkedIn connections in Tokyo. Prior to every one of these meetings, I asked each person the same question: Will you be offended if I don’t wear a suit?” The first response, “You’ll realize just how not offended I’ll be when you see how I dress.”

Music to my ears!

On the same day, I had another meeting with a businessman visiting from NY. Asked him the same question. His answer: “I don’t own a suit!”

More beautiful music!

Thankfully, all my other meet-ups gave me similar responses. My question: Is the suit really going the way of the dodo bird? Hope so!

Check out this Vox article, The Decline of the Suit

Culture and Values: Is It a Sin to Tell a Lie?

In a recent article, I presented and analyzed a scenario in which an American consultant tried to convince a stubborn Japanese executive that, in this day and age, producing high-quality hardware alone is not a scalable business model.

One element of my analysis compared differences in how Americans and Japanese prioritize the values of truth versus harmony. Specifically, my analysis listed “truth” as an American/Western value and “harmony” as a Japanese/Confucian value. One of my readers respectfully called me out on this. In his words:

“I always love when you do these (info-graphics), and this one is insightful as always. My only quibble would be to reconsider listing “truth” as a value in the foreigner column, opposing Japanese “harmony.” Besides being a Japanese value as well, truth is often subjective, especially in cross-cultural interactions. Just a thought!”

This is a legitimate comment that I truly appreciate, as it compelled me to further refine my analysis. For what it’s worth, here’s how I responded to that comment. 

“Truth is indeed subjective. As I always say, just because Westerners claim to value the truth (a value passed down from the Greek philosophers), doesn’t mean we necessary practice it, or that our “truth” is even accurate. It’s just an ideal that we believe we ought to abide by. Likewise, just because Japanese value “harmony” doesn’t mean they are always harmonious. Indeed, Japanese value truth too. But when truth and harmony collide, often the truth gets swept under the rug so harmony can be preserved, or someone can save face, etc. It’s all about prioritizing conflicting values, and all cultures have to make those value trade-offs…”

Upon reflection, one of the big weaknesses in my analysis is that my model, due to its compact design, fell short in capturing the finer nuances of the cultural reality. This article is an attempt to rectify the matter.

My first reflection is that when truth and harmony collide in Japan, it’s not a simple matter of the Japanese embracing harmony and completely denying the truth. Rather, the Japanese make a distinction between stating the truth publicly versus discussing it privately. (They actually have an expression that describes this dichotomy; it’s called “honne-tatemae” and is often translated as “the real truth” versus “the truth for public consumption,” a concept I will cover in a future post.)

In mulling over the truth/harmony value difference, a recent personal experience came to mind in which my Japanese wife intentionally shielded my mother-in-law from an unpleasant truth. To wit, Japanese mom’s best friend was hospitalized with a serious medical condition. At one point, her friend’s condition was so dire that her doctor encouraged family members and loved ones to visit the hospital to say their final goodbyes. When we received the bad news, my wife let me know in no uncertain terms that I should not mention any of this to her mother, as she feared “it might upset her.”

Of course, I honored my wife’s wishes. And it turned out to be the right decision, for the story has a happy ending: To everyone’s delight, mom’s dear friend miraculously recovered.

And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would feel if one of my friends were in a similar situation and my loved ones had kept it from me to “spare my feelings.” Truth is, I would be both heartbroken and livid, especially if my friend passed away without me having a chance to say good-bye.

I am not arguing that my point of view on this is correct and that my wife’s is wrong. But it is a powerful example of how contrasting cultural values can influence how we choose to deal with such situations.

I can think of many similar (albeit less dramatic) stories that I encounter in my everyday dealings with the Japanese. But this story is indicative of how the Japanese will, in the name of harmony (and someone’s peace of mind), choose to sweep the truth under the rug.

In a future article, I will analyze a similar example in the mixed Japanese-American workplace of “sweeping the truth under the rug” to help a Japanese colleague “save face.” For now, here is my analysis of the aforementioned cross-cultural exchange with my wife.

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Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Do All Balding White Men Look Alike?

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A friend recently shared a picture of me jamming with some friends at a local night club in Atami, Japan, so I posted it on my Facebook page.

At first glance, I appear to be a normal, average-looking, balding old white dude. 

Another friend—whom I haven’t seen in more than ten years—took it upon himself to post a picture of Peter Frampton below my post. With no comment. 

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I was thoroughly confused. What was my friend implying? That my guitar playing is on par with the great Peter Frampton?  

That didn’t make sense for a couple reasons. First, Frampton-style rock isn’t my thing. Second, as guitar playing goes, I’m but an amateur hack who, on a good day, struggles to hold his own. 

So there had to be another reason. To clear up my confusion, I responded to my friend’s post with the following comment: “I’m missing the connection to this post. Please enlighten me.” 

His answer: “You look like Peter Frampton. Just sayin’!”

Before I could respond again, another friend chimed in with a post claiming that he thought I looked “a little like Luke Skywalker,” who, for the record, has a full head of hair. More baffling is that Peter Frampton and Luke Skywalker don’t at all look alike. Did I mention that Peter Frampton is 8 years older than me? And that he’s bald?

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My curiosity compelled me to jokingly ask my Peter-Frampton-posting friend if it’s because “we’re both balding white dudes?”

My friend, a balding non-white dude, responded with a laughing emoji.

And this is where I come clean: I am not sensitive at all about being follicly-challenged because I’m not really bald. I simply shave my head. Yes, you heard that right. I am a fraud, a fake baldy!

I’d be remiss not to mention here that, from as far back as my teenage years and through my four years in the Navy, having hair—long hair—was important to me. But with the wisdom of hindsight, I now know that it wasn’t at all about the hair; it was about bucking authority figures telling me to cut my hair. I know this to be true, as my obsession with long hair disappeared immediately after people stopped telling me to cut it.

And then I hit my thirties. When my hairline started receding. 

I consoled myself at the time with the twisted rationalization that I wasn’t going bald—that my face was merely expanding.

At the same time, my hair started thinning in the back of my head. And again I rationalized: my cowlick is expanding too!

With my hairline retreating from the front and my cowlick advancing from the rear, I figured it was just a matter of time before the two forces met in the middle to create a follicle-less, barren tundra on top of my head.

I vowed to myself then and there that when the inevitable happened, rather than doing a classic combover intervention (which fools no one), I would embrace my baldness by shaving my entire head. After all, what better way to hide your bald spots than to shave your entire head?

But then something happened. Or rather, it didn’t happen. My receding hairline and cowlick silently called a truce, which spared the lives of at least a hundred thousand innocent, peace-loving follicles.

And harmony has reigned on top of my head ever since.

To some, this might seem like a fortuitous turn of events. Oh contraire! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become an aspiring minimalist. Indeed, I’d have no problem living in a tiny house. My most cherished worldly possessions today can fit easily into any compact space: desk, laptop, printer, headphones, a few choice books with sentimental value, and my three beloved guitars, small amp optional. My wardrobe would fit snuggly in four drawers, and that accounts for three pairs of shoes.

My minimalism also extends to my body. No tattoos, no piercings, no jewelry, don’t even have a wedding ring. My body is a blank slate.

I’ve learned that the more I eliminate clutter from my life, the more time I have to spend on what’s important, which naturally raises my happiness quotient.

Well, after moving to Hawaii, I took yet another step in furthering my minimalistic lifestyle; I shaved my head. Every. Single. Follicle.

And what a liberating decision that turned out to be! It made me realize how overrated hair was—that throughout the course of my life, fussing with my hair had sucked up way too much of time and energy, an unnecessary burden I no longer wished to carry.

Being bald had some wonderful side effects: no need to buy a comb or shampoo; no need for a barber; no muss no fuss about fixing my hair in the morning; and absolutely no better way to stay cool in the subtropics. Minimalism at its finest.

Do I look like Peter Frampton? If so, my sympathies to poor Peter. It might help somewhat if he’d embrace his baldness and lose the sidewalls. Just sayin’!

Is my doppelganger Peter Frampton or Luke Skywalker? You be the judge.

Either way, the minimalist force is with me. Being bald rocks.

Above: Jamming with my Japanese homies to the Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson tune “Hold It Right There.”  Enjoy. 🙂

Copyright Tim Sullivan © 2019

What Does “Marketing” Mean In Japan?

Once upon a time in a previous life, I worked for a prestigious Japanese management consulting firm that was trying to make headway in the U.S. market. The company was originally affiliated with Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (通産省) but eventually became a for-profit entity in the early 1980s. As lean-manufacturing concepts spread to other countries in the 80s and 90s, our company started branching out as well, with the goal of becoming a “global player.”

The company had a great product, a “better mousetrap” if you will. But it wasn’t nearly enough to get the world to beat a path to our door. In the end, we would prove to be a victim of our success in Japan.

For starters, our company had no incentive to actively market and sell its services in Japan since its history and former affiliation with the Japanese government served as a badge of prestige that almost ensured clients would beat a path to our door. Would-be Japanese clients would actually come to the company, bow their heads and humbly ask for help. A wonderful situation to be in. If you’re a prestigious, well-known entity in Japan.

Unfortunately, this same company had zero name recognition abroad much less prestige. It didn’t help that it never once felt the need to establish a marketing culture to maintain a sustainable client base; it also didn’t help that the company didn’t grasp what it meant to be “global.” But perhaps the bigger problem was that no one seemed to understand what the concept of “marketing” meant.

On the positive side, we managed to snag some high profile clients early on, clients that kept us busy, although not nearly enough to sustain us long-term. So one fateful day, my Japanese boss marched into the morning meeting and announced that we were going to “spend the day marketing.”

It’s worth mentioning here that marketing has never been my area of expertise, and at best, I know just enough to be dangerous. But even to me, something sounded a bit off about “spending the day marketing.” My notion of marketing conjured up images of research, strategy, and planning, although admittedly, I was fuzzy on the details and execution. And yet, I knew intuitively that marketing wasn’t a thing you just randomly decide to do on a given day.

Still, I naively entertained the possibility that my Japanese colleagues were wiser than me and had some magical, counter-intuitive Zen marketing ideas up their sleeves. This thinking only served to set me up for a big letdown. For when my Japanese boss told us what was in store for us that day, I could almost hear the writing getting etched on the proverbial wall.

I eventually left that company for a better career opportunity long before that ship started sinking. Amazingly the company hung on for more than ten years before finally pulling the plug. What’s unfortunate is that, even with a great product, the company was unable to adapt to the new reality, very disappointing since there was so much potential. Management had no clue how to scale.

Below is the exchange that happened that fateful day, along with my (admittedly imperfect) analysis. I welcome feedback from any marketing experts out there on how best to fill in the cross-cultural blanks below the linguistic surface.

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Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019