Communication, Authenticity, and Breaking the No-Hug Rule

“The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response than to send the “right message.”

Edward T. and Mildred Reed Hall

Let’s expand on the quote above: I submit that the essence of communication itself is more about releasing responses than sending messages.

Sales folks know this intuitively. To them, “communication” means getting you to buy their product or service. Hence, the salesperson’s message is structured around achieving that desired response, and there are so many ways to skin that cat. Said another way, no matter how “right” your message is, if you don’t get your desired response then what’s the point?

The counter argument to this might be that sometimes you want to just “tell someone off” by hitting them with the painful truth. But even this scenario fits Hall’s model: it’s very effective communication to punch someone in the nose with the truth if your goal is to shock them, and even more effective if your goal is to tick them off. One possible upside of the “painful truth” approach is that you get the occasional guy or gal who respond by reflecting and taking appropriate measures to improve. But more often than not, the recipient of “the truth” gets wounded, goes into a defensive posture, and becomes obsessed with being “right” rather than dealing with the truth.

In this sense, communication is strategic. Anyone can construct a message. But it takes real skill and savvy to package a message that elicits not just a response, but a desired response.

With an open, inquisitive mind, just about anyone can learn to improve communication skills. It starts with a foundation of authenticity.

Authenticity and Not Creeping People Out

One of the myths about cross-cultural communication is that you have to act like the culture you’re trying to connect with. Problem with this approach is that authenticity–who you are–gets lost in the charade. Here’s my logic: if you can’t be who you are what’s the point of connecting with anyone in the first place?

Trust me, when Americans try to “act Japanese” they totally creep out the Japanese. And when Japanese act like Americans it creeps me out too. Creeping each other out is not a good way to start a relationship.

So this is about as close to a “rule” as you’ll hear from me: be authentic!

Why I Don’t Do “Dos and Don’ts”

You won’t hear me telling clients specifically how to behave with another culture, no “dos and don’ts” in my world. My job is to define the situation and let others decide for themselves what to do. This approach is based on my unshakeable belief that people will only do what they decide to do, and that most folks resist when told what to do.

My other belief is that once people are properly educated, most will make good decisions and do the right thing. To abuse an old cliché, if telling people what to do is leading the horse to water, then educating them is what makes the horse thirsty. We’re in the business of making folks thirsty enough to drink the water.

This approach is reflected in our seminars: the first half is a concentrated lecture to “define the current situation.” This means letting the participants know what the other side says about them, both positive and negative; it means getting participants to understand the other culture’s basic values, history, geography, etc, and then tying the information to how members of that culture think and feel about the world. The idea is to bring to the surface the key value gaps that hinder cooperation and communication.

The last half of the seminar is an interactive workshop that throws participants into various situations, in which we challenge them to reflect on newly gained knowledge, then tell us what they would do. Participants never fail to amaze me with their ability to creatively apply knowledge within the context of these scenarios, based on an understanding of basic big-picture cultural traditions. It’s pure magic.

The point of all this is that to employ an effective communication approach toward someone from another culture, it’s essential to understand that culture’s values, and how its members view you. But it’s impossible to come up with a set of “cross-cultural commandments” of any practical value. There are an infinite number of situations and personality combinations, so there would be too many rules to learn, most of which would need to be broken anyway. Absolute rules don’t work in the dynamic, unpredictable world of human interactions. The best you can hope for are general guidelines.

A dear Japanese friend, who happens to be an engineer, once told me he preferred working with machines instead of people. His reasoning was that machines are logical and consistent, while humans are neither. Human inconsistency frustrated him.

To his point, in the realm of human relationships there’s no such thing as a “scientific law of gravity” that puts the world into a tidy, predictable, absolute package. In the cross-cultural universe, sometimes Newton’s apple falls, sometimes it floats away, and sometimes it explodes.

In the end, each person has to decide if and how to adjust based on any given situation. The challenge is finding that cross-cultural “sweet-spot” that captures one’s authenticity, while making just enough adjustments to get a desired response.

Breaking the No-Hug Rule, A Case Study

Here’s a public confession for readers to chew on: I really don’t believe in universal cross-cultural commandments because  I am an unrepentant, serial rule breaker.

Here’s a great concrete example: the Japanese don’t hug. We all know they bow. Based on this information we could chisel into stone a cross-cultural commandment that states, “Thou shalt not hug Japanese people!”

Guarantee I’d break this rule every time I met a Japanese friend in Hawaii. I’d break it every time we went to Hilo Airport to pick up Japanese visitors, when we give them a lei and a warm forbidden hug. (Yes it freaks them out; but it also breaks the ice and makes them smile. Our Japanese guests usually reciprocate with three nervous pats on my back–a “distant hug” for sure–but much better than nothing.)

Breaking the no-hug commandment works because the Japanese visitor knows we’re in Hawaii, on our turf. Not to mention that secretly, deep down, many Japanese actually enjoy hugging, precisely because it’s not something they’re allowed to do in their world. To the Japanese, hugging is foreign; it’s Hawaii; it’s exotic; and it’s cool–especially when done with a “Hawaii local”.

We’ve made many new Japanese friends in Hawaii. When they visit our home we hug. And when we hook up with them in Japan, we hug them there too. Hugging is a visual manifestation of a relationship born and nurtured in Hawaii, a custom that works across the culture gap in the right situations. Observing our Japanese friends’ body language during these hugging encounters, we can see they relish doing the “Hawaii thing”, especially in front of their Japanese friends. And we’re very happy to oblige because, well, breaking rules is fun!

But here’s the catch: without a deep and broad understanding of the guy on the other side of the cultural fence, one runs the risk of breaking rules without knowing it, a big handicap when reaching across that cultural fence. You really need to know the rules if you’re going to break them. That’s the value of education and awareness.

In ensuing posts we’ll look at key concepts that help sharpen cross-cultural awareness, guide decisions on appropriate behavior, and provide strategic insights into crafting messages that elicit desired responses.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011


2 responses to “Communication, Authenticity, and Breaking the No-Hug Rule

  1. Aloha Tim, Good to “hear” that all is well. Just a short, somewhat philosophical comment that’d come up upon reading this post. And that’s, that: in these transformational times — and maybe all along — it seems to me that the onus of healthy intercultural intercourse is certainly also on that of the “creeped out”. Having spent a fair amount years working for Japanese companies, I’ve continually been up against the “group cohesion” that was “creeped out” about my dissension concerning any number of supposed “right behaviors” — not meekly stepping into the sensei physical exam truck, to have an annual chest x-ray and/or radioactive barium cocktail slammed into me, comes to mind, among others. Anyway, my point being that Japanese culture, in attempts at not being creeped, or creepy, have done so to some fairly absurd conclusions. And they may very well be at a watershed, whereby, sensible further adaptation requires the changing of long-held social rigidities, including the creep-factor. (Hope my comment dint creep ya out. Give a call when you return and let’s drink a creepy beer.)

  2. I’m over here in Japan right now creeping ’em all out. It’s called “playing the gaijin card”. Hey, I’m happy to conform and play the game within reason, but won’t sell my soul if it means abandoning my values and “authenticity”. But the real point of this post is that when the Japanese are in Rome–or Hawaii–they are much more flexible in tolerating differences that wouldn’t normally fly in their homeland. That said, I just finished a seminar in Tokyo with 10 cultures represented (one of which was Japan). I went in there and unleashed on them my creepy authenticity, something even a Japanese “sensei” couldn’t get away with. Perhaps I ruffled some feathers, but to quote the great Popeye, “I yam what I yam!” They have other options if they don’t like my style. Must not offend ’em too much as they keep asking me to come back. So I’ll keep on keeping on until I run out of clients.

    Look forward to sharing a cold one 😉

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