There’s No Rule Book for Building Cross-Cultural Bridges


Clients occasionally ask me to incorporate a list of “dos and don’ts” into my cross-cultural training. I always balk because I don’t have any rules, at least none that I haven’t broken. But if I did have rules, they’d go something like this:

1) Be authentic.

2) Don’t do dos-and-don’ts.

Let’s start with authenticity. It’s a beautiful thing and grossly undervalued. For people who are self-aware and authentic by nature, it’s an effortless state-of-being that serves them well. Other people spend a lifetime searching for their true authentic selves and never find it. The rest of us are somewhere in between, doing our best. But however evolved and self-aware one may be, nothing is more powerful than authenticity in connecting with people, whether within or across cultures. If you can’t be yourself after all, what’s the point of making a human connection in the first place?

Here’s an extreme example of authenticity trumping cultural differences, one that’s so counterintuitive I struggle to believe it myself.

I have an American friend who is loud, brutally direct, and obnoxious—even by American standards. He once bluntly told a dear Japanese friend in a public setting that her English was incomprehensible (it wasn’t), and that she should “really work harder on improving it.” (This coming from someone who struggles with his own native tongue.) And yet, this friend is also one of the most authentic, attentive, and caring people I know. In a bull-in-a-China-shop sort of way.

Now if I were to list the traits most likely to alienate the Japanese, loud, direct and obnoxious would be at the top. Which means that in no known theoretical universe should my friend be getting along well with Japanese folks. And yet, all the Japanese people who have met him are crazy about him. His authenticity and attentiveness somehow cancels out his brashness and lack of tact. As an interculturalist, I can’t explain how he does it. All I can do is point to his personality and shrug my shoulders.

And while I believe adjustments in cross-cultural interactions with Japanese (or any other culture) are critical in building bridges, going to the extreme of “acting Japanese” is a horrible and ineffective option, as it will only creep out the Japanese; they value authenticity just like the rest of us.

But hitting the cross-cultural sweet spot is indeed a tough balancing act. For even the most sincere, authentic person in the world struggles to find that elusive balance between staying true to oneself and making just the right adjustments to build that bridge.

The question then is how to strike the right balance. The challenge is finding your cross-cultural sweet spot, a place unique to—and only discoverable by—each person. We’ll come back to this. First, let’s put to rest the dreaded dos-and-don’ts list.

As mentioned above, any cross-cultural rule I could possibly make, I could just as easily break. Let’s use a real example. We all know that Japanese greet each other by bowing. We also know most Japanese will adjust their greeting style by shaking hands when meeting Westerners. But anyone who has regular contact with Japanese folks also knows they don’t hug. Exceptions exist, of course, but hugging is not a common Japanese pattern of behavior, even within Japanese families, much less with overly affectionate foreigners. In other words, if I were so inclined, I could incorporate a “don’t-hug-Japanese-people” rule into my training. It’s safe to say that following this rule would be advisable in most encounters with the Japanese.

Before proceeding any further, full disclosure: I come from a family of huggers, and after living in Hawaii for fifteen years, I’ve become even “huggier.” My Japanese wife is—thanks to 33 years of intensive hugging therapy in the U.S.—a recovering non-hugger. Together we break the no-hug rule every time a Japanese guest visits us on the Big Island of Hawaii. And we get away with it, because it’s all about authenticity and context.

Here’s the context: we always pick up our Japanese guests at Hilo airport. Upon their arrival, we put leis around their necks then move in quickly for our hug. The move surprises them, but it also breaks the ice and makes them smile; they know they’re on our turf now, and are happy to suspend their hug-less existence to experience life like a Hawaii local, however briefly.

Could it be the magic of Hawaii? Maybe. If it is, that magic travels well, for when I meet these same folks in Japan, they greet me with a smile and a hug. (And even seem to enjoy it.) And this illustrates in concrete terms the effectiveness of strategically breaking a “rule” in the name of authenticity and making a human connection.

But there is no rule book, no prescriptive paint-by-the-numbers scheme for every possible situation and personality one might encounter in a cross-cultural interaction. Connecting with people is an art, not a science. Education helps, but it’s up to each person to design and build a unique, customized bridge, one that starts from a place of authenticity and reaches across cultural and linguistic gaps to connect with a unique human being on the other end.

While I don’t recommend you start hugging Japanese people willy-nilly, you will be more successful at communicating by not letting one-size-fits-all rules limit how you engage. Find your sweet spot. Be authentic.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

4 responses to “There’s No Rule Book for Building Cross-Cultural Bridges

  1. Excellent post.
    “huggier” love it!
    In Japan, half the time I never knew if I was coming or going. ( … )
    At my Japanese school (in Hawaii), we’ve been all through that trenchant question: “To hug or not to hug?”
    It’s been most entertaining sometimes. When hugs break out, and the awkwardness of “Oh Jeez, now (if i’m to follow my collectivist cultural norms) I better hug sensei too … like my classmates … gosh! I don’t want to be a freak.” (Dunno how to write that in Japanese, but you get my drift.) So then, the hugs get all overly premeditated as the young Daisuke is approaching his teacher to receive the ‘graduation certificate’. My dear gf teaches at the same school. She’s already the occidental version of shy. So one evening, as the hug-precedent goes into play by some previous hugophile teacher, the telegraph is sent out: “We’s a huggin’ sensei now! So step up. Hug! Dammit.” Anyway, one by one, they preceded on their long walk up to the front to receive their certificate … and their hug (body-press by any other name).
    Me? I was conflicted. Between my gf’s disinclination to hug and the (all boy) students’ rich complexity of hug-hangups over embracing their (rather attractive) teacher — why, hug after hug, the subsequent hug would seemingly outdo the previous hug’s exquisite awkwardness (well, from this wiseass reporter’s perspective in the back of the room anyway).
    At some point it became quite unclear as to if someone was somehow assaulting someone in some way. I think I may have even seen my gf and one awkward student go “to first base” in a certain baseball parlance you may remember…
    I’ve gone on too long. But sometime remind of the bit I do to let my students know when they are practicing the Western practice of handshaking in an unsatisfactory *limp* manner. (“Minna-san. Yoroshiku-onegaishimasu!” capped off with a rousing not-into-it…handtouch (as it is perhaps perceived in Japan).
    So ya. Hugs. They can be tough.

  2. Ha. Thanks for commenting Darren.

    “But sometime remind of the bit I do to let my students know when they are practicing the Western practice of handshaking in an unsatisfactory *limp* manner.”

    Ah, the dreaded “dead-fish” handshake! It was always part of my first lesson: how to shake hands with a firm grip. 🙂

  3. Richard Velazquez

    I love this article. Excellent. My impression is; true, true and true.

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