Category Archives: communication

Humor Lost in Translation (and the Ticked-Off Japanese Wife)

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I’ve never been so clueless as to say *this* to my Japanese wife. (We communicate in Japanese, but frankly, I wouldn’t know how to pull this off in Japanese anyway, as certain types of humor just don’t translate.) Note that I stole this particular wisecrack from my high school math teacher, but just about any sarcastic remark will elicit a similar reaction. With 35 years of marital bliss under my belt, I’ve learned how to make my wife laugh, but occasionally stumble and make jokes that fall into the gap. How does this relate to business? I’ve seen similar miscommunications happen at numerous mixed-culture meetings. Cross-cultural humor is an acquired skill, but it comes with risk, especially sarcasm and irony. So joker beware!

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Can Japanese Hospitality Go Too Far?

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I am a big fan of Japanese hospitality, especially the kikubari tradition (気配り=”the art of anticipation”). I personally appreciate kikubari even when it misses the mark. But Japanese service providers should be aware that some foreigners would rather have a choice than have the host decide for them. I plugged a simple scenario into my communication model. Here’s what it looks like in English:

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Here’s the Japanese version:

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What do you think? Do the Japanese sometimes go too far by “over-anticipating”?

For more on “kikubari” check out Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.

How to Avoid Being Micromanaged by Your Japanese Boss

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On yesterday’s post, I introduced my communication model. Building on that foundation, today I’ll provide yet another concrete example of a typical communication breakdown that happens when Japanese and non-Japanese work together.

For some context, Japanese managers have an expression called “hōrensō.” It is actually an acronym made up of three Japanese words: 「報告」(hōkoku), 「連絡」(renraku), and 「相談」(sōdan), which literally translates as “report-contact-consult.” Note that the acronym is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spinach” (“hōrensō“), which makes it easy to remember. (For more details on the hōrensō process, check out The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss.)

Many non-Japanese believe that “hōrensō” is a form of micromanagement, but I see it as a tool to avoid being micromanaged, a technique to turn the tables and actually manage your Japanese boss. Granted, it can be time-consuming at first but think of it as an investment in your time to build trust, an essential condition to get your boss to back off and let you do your job.

So without further ado, here’s my analysis of how Japanese and non-Japanese are on different wavelengths in terms of how this concept is perceived. (Two examples are provided: one in English, one in Japanese.)

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And the Japanese version…

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Hope these visuals help.

 

 

10 Things We All Need to Apologize For

board-229730_960_720The other day an article scrolled onto my LinkedIn feed titled 10 Things to Never Apologize For Again. My first thought was that people in my culture don’t apologize enough. My second thought was, please don’t give my people more reasons not to apologize!

In fairness, it was a good list and the author made some great points.  Still, can’t help but think the world needs more apologizing, not less. So to get the universe back in balance, here’s my list of things we should always apologize for. In no particular order.

You should apologize if…

  1. … you overuse fancy jargon to make things sound more complicated than they are. (My field is the worst offender. Unless it’s actually rocket science, please speak plain English.)
  2. …you send connection requests on LinkedIn without a brief courtesy message. (A simple greeting will do.)
  3. …you are a keyboard warrior who flings insults online that you’d never dare say to someone’s face. (If you can’t be brave, at least be civil.)
  4. …you argue politics on social media, especially on LinkedIn. (Divisive and unproductive, business and politics are a bad combination.)
  5. …you think you have nothing to apologize for. (You do.)
  6. …you accuse everyone else of being in a bubble. (Proof you are living in the tiniest of bubbles.)
  7. …you assign yourself a pretentious business title that doesn’t exist in real life, like “Relationship Integration Versatilist,” (counselor) or Transparency Enhancement Technician (window washer).
  8. …you use nouns like “leverage” and “gift” as verbs. (Who gave these nouns permission to become verbs?)
  9. …you use words like “opulent,” “high-toned,” and “resonantly floral” to describe your coffee. (Just drink it and enjoy!)
  10. …you make lists of reasons people should apologize. (For that I sincerely apologize.)

It’s easy making this list for other people. Now try making one for yourself. Not so easy, and not nearly as much fun. But there’s a big upside: it’s a wonderful exercise in self-reflection.

What’s your list?

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

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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

How a Bearded Barbarian Won Over His Japanese Mother-In-Law

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We were resolute but worried. After an eight-month courtship, I had finally popped the question to my Japanese girlfriend. She accepted, and with that, we were committed to tying the knot come hell or high water. But we still had to break the news to her parents. We were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t try to stop us, but we had concerns. Mostly about dad.

Her parents had met me six months earlier, when my girlfriend decided—against my better judgement—that it was time to ease me into the family fold. It’s worth noting here that I am three years younger than my wife, so at the time she viewed me—somewhat condescendingly—like the little brother she never had, a formidable barrier in getting her to consider me as a serious suitor.  But alas, I was too in love to be deterred, so was more than willing to overlook a little condescension. Like an obedient little brother, I did what I was told. It was time to meet the parents.

When girlfriend called her parents to let them know she was bringing home a guest, she referred to me ambiguously as otoko no ko, which literally means “a young boy,” even though I was 24 years old at the time. Hilarity would ensue, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

Honorable girlfriend was a teacher by profession. I would later find out that Japanese mom and dad were half expecting their daughter’s mysterious guest to be a young student of elementary-school age. And they were half right: I was a student, in my 3rd year at International Christian University. Unfortunately, I was also an idiot, a fact bolstered by my lack of proper grooming. Think wild, disheveled hair, scruffy beard, and sloppy loose-fitting clothes that could easily be mistaken for pajamas. My heart was in the right place, but I lacked the wherewithal to dress the part. I would find out later after we left that day, that intense debate ensued within the family on whether I looked more like Jesus or Socrates.

Now try to imagine the look on Japanese mom’s face when she greeted us at the front door. The scene is still vivid in my memory even after 36 years: door opens, mom looks downward expecting to see a little kid, her eyes track upward until she stops abruptly at my unshaven mug and curly, wild hair. Normally a stoic, pokerfaced woman, she couldn’t hide her disdain. It was obvious even to common-senseless me that I’d blown my one and only chance to make a good first impression. Here’s what I looked like:

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Bearded barbarian in his pajamas.

Dad’s reaction was tougher to read. I had no clue what he was thinking, which was, in a weird way, more disturbing than knowing for certain that he disapproved. The only saving grace at the time was that neither mom nor dad knew the nature of my relationship with their daughter. To them, I was just a “friend,” albeit a barbarian friend who didn’t have the good sense to change out of his pajamas.

Fast forward six months, back to our impending engagement announcement. In retrospect, why we were more concerned about dad than mom is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we knew his approval carried more weight. Or that we overestimated mom’s tolerance for foreigners. Whatever we were thinking, they both threw us a curve ball. Here’s how it unfolded.

Girlfriend phoned home to break the news. Dad answered because mom was out and about. A straight-shooter by nature, my wife-to-be didn’t mince words:

“Dad, remember that foreigner I brought home about half a year ago?”

“You mean the guy wearing pajamas who looks like Jesus?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What about him?”

“We’re getting married.”

“Oh, that’s good. Anything else?”

“No that’s it. Could you let mom know?”

“Sure.”

Click.

Girlfriend was stunned. Bearded barbarian was equally stunned. Dad didn’t object! And suddenly we were hopeful. That is, until half an hour later when mom called back in a tizzy.

“You’re going to marry that hairy foreigner who looks like Socrates?

“Dad said he looks like Jesus.”

“Well I still don’t approve!”

“Dad didn’t object.”

Pregnant pause.

“Are you sure about this? Don’t you know that all foreigners get divorced?”

“They don’t all get divorced. You worry too much.”

“How will you communicate?”

“He speaks Japanese, mom, remember?”

“But he’s going to take you back to America, and I’ll never see you again!”

“No, he wants to live in Japan forever.”

“But what does his family think?”

“They are fine with it.”

<Sigh>

Then just for fun, my fiancé dropped another bombshell.

“Oh, and before we get married, we’ve decided to live together for half a year, just to see how it goes before we make it official.”

Needless to say, fireworks ensued and it wasn’t pretty. But my fiancé held firm.

We would later learn that dad put the kibosh on mom’s objections when he told her, “If I had listened to my parents, I’d have never married you. Our daughter is a grown woman, we raised her to make good decisions. We have to trust her, and let her live her own life.”

And that’s when we realized just how cool Japanese dad was.

On the other hand, it took a big adjustment to my grooming standards—not to mention help from a trusted friend—to move the needle with mom. My Japanese guarantor, a well-respected researcher with a steady job and doctorate degree from a highly respected school (Kyushu University), was kind enough to drive out to the homestead to assure mom that, despite my appearance to the contrary, I wasn’t the devil. By then my friend had already met my parents, and understood that I came from “good stock” (or so he thought). His ringing endorsement went a long way in mitigating the situation, as Japanese mom quickly went from “absolutely not,” to “grudging acceptance.” Not optimal, but it was a start.

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Newly clean-shaven me tickling wife-to-be, while honorable guarantor attempts to crack a smile. Japanese mom is on the right, looking somewhat reassured.

The following year we officially tied the knot. I buckled down on my Japanese studies, graduated from college, cut my hair, became gainfully employed, and even upped the ante a year later by producing (with some help from my wife) a grandson for my in-laws, making it virtually impossible for mom to withdraw her support, however grudging it was. The only glitch occurred when I was offered, and accepted, a job with a Japanese automotive parts supplier committed to building a new factory in America’s Deep South. This was a career-altering opportunity, a two-year stint that my wife enthusiastically supported, which means we had to break that little promise about me living in Japan forever.

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The (re)bearded barbarian trying to fit in with the Tennessee locals.

Well, that two-year stint turned into a thirty-three-year stay in the U.S. So we didn’t just break that promise, we blew it to smithereens. As penance, we gave Japanese mom another grandchild, which compelled her and Japanese dad to come for a visit. After meeting their second grandson and a face-to-face with my parents, there was no turning back. Mom was now firmly trapped in “grudging-resignation” mode.

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The in-laws finally meet. Cross-cultural awkwardness ensued.

From that fateful day thirty-six years ago when my wife brought me home to meet the parents, winning over mom has been like turning a battleship around in the water. Four years ago during a Japan visit, mom finally came clean about her strong opposition to our union. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been privy to this all along.) Most impressive was that she openly admitted she’d been “wrong” to oppose our marriage, that she could see how happy her daughter was, and that she was genuinely glad we had gotten married. And yes, her precious grandchildren had a lot to do with it too. But she still likes to remind me how pathetic I looked the first time we met, and we laugh and laugh. Still, words can’t express how good it felt to officially win her approval, and how much respect I have for her ability to reflect, transcend her prejudices, and admit to me she was wrong.

And today we’re as thick as thieves.

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Older barbarian delivering an unexpected kiss.

After thirty-three years in the U.S. we’ve come full circle. Sadly, Japanese dad passed on three years ago, so mom now lives alone. We are in the process of moving back to Japan permanently to care for mom in her old age.

I’ve spent my 40-year career helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect in the workplace, often going into hostile environments to defuse explosive situations with the goal of coaxing clients into “kissing and making-up,” so to speak. And yet I consider the relationship I’ve built with Japanese mom to be my ultimate cross-cultural accomplishment. If I can bridge a culture gap on this scale—further compounded by the poor judgement of my reckless youth—then I can bridge just about anything.

And here I am today, back in Japan, a cross-cultural business consultant looking for new challenges. Can’t wait to hit the ground running.

Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

Who In Their Right Mind Moves to Pahoa?

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I’ve always had a rebel streak in me. Got it from my dad, a grown man who relished finding ways to break rules without technically breaking them.

Dad liked to say he didn’t “play according to Hoyle,” a reference to the famous book of rules for card games (see According to Hoyle). Clueless at the time about the Hoyle reference, I knew from context what dad meant: he liked to do things his way.

How dad navigated our expressway tollbooths speaks volumes about him, and by extension, me. He’d always have exact change in hand when pulling into what was then considered an automated tollbooth (long before the days of ipass scanner technology). He’d toss in his coins without coming to a stop, punch the accelerator, and race toward the tollbooth red light, his goal, to trip the alarm before the light turned green—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

And on the rare occasion the green light beat dad to the punch, he was visibly disappointed, a lost chance to stick it to the man–or at least tweak him–without technically breaking any rules.

I still remember asking dad why he did it. His answer was borderline blasphemous: “I don’t have time to wait for the goddamn light to turn green—I’m a busy man!”

And with all due love and respect to my dad he was full of shit; he blew those tollbooth lights because he didn’t play according to Hoyle.

These moments are still etched in my memory forty years later. And even with all the teenage relationship issues I had with my dad at the time, every time he’d trip those annoying tollbooth bells, I remember thinking he was about the coolest guy in the world.

With that kind of role model it’s no surprise I turned out the way I did. And not so outlandish that I ended up in Pahoa, a place where folks don’t play according to Hoyle.

From Outlaws to Barefoot Hippies With iphones

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Pahoa has an outlaw reputation that was well earned back in the 1970s and 80s during its pakalolo heyday. Pakalolo (literally, “crazy weed”) is still around of course, but the heydays of yore are well behind Pahoa–for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

Hoyle and his rules notwithstanding, Dad wouldn’t have liked the old outlaw version of Pahoa, nor would he have been thrilled with today’s version either; way too many hippies for his liking, and not a single tollbooth to violate.

But dad would surely have appreciated the historical significance of Pahoa Town, and grudgingly acknowledged its funky Bohemian charm.

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Interestingly Hawaii’s own locals are harder on Pahoa than most mainlanders. Shortly after moving here it surprised me to learn that Pahoa’s reputation extended to our neighboring islands. I still remember exchanging business cards with a client in Honolulu who, upon seeing my Pahoa address, asked with tongue in cheek, “Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?”

I’ve even heard of folks born and raised in nearby Hilo—just 30 miles away—who have never in their lives been to Pahoa Town, not even the Puna district, because of the bad rap we get. So bad is our rap, that even Dog the Bounty Hunter’s crazy wife Beth once warned viewers that, “Puna is a place you don’t want to be after dark.”

There’s a story behind Puna’s outlaw reputation, a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the “Wild East” days of Pahoa Town are well behind us, but the reputation lives on.

Last time I ventured into Pahoa there were no outlaws, no bounty hunters, just some barefoot hippies drinking lattes and gazing at their iphones. (But let’s not tell Dog and Beth.)

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Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?

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If my circle of friends is any indication, people in their “right minds” actually do live in Pahoa, but they tend to stand out. The good news is, Pahoa tolerates normal people too.

For context it’s worth touching on local demographics. In addition to the native Hawaiians, Pahoa and the surrounding area is populated by locals of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, many of mixed heritage, many third and fourth generation Japanese. Being that this is their turf and all, the local folks would logically represent “the norm” in this context–which by default makes the rest of us the oddballs.

The area has also had a new influx of transplants from around the world over the past decade, mostly from the mainland. Last I checked Caucasians are still in the minority in the Puna district, and that’s fine with me, as my former life in Japan taught me to embrace being the only white guy on the block.

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It’s useful to think of Puna locals as a completely different culture, richly diverse, but generally much closer to Asia than mainland U.S.A. The fact that the locals speak English can almost lull you into thinking otherwise, but deep below the familiar linguistic surface, culture gaps abound.

To an outsider–even folks from Honolulu–the Puna district seems like a strange, exotic foreign country. But most Puna locals I know, within the context of their own cultural norms, tend to be a socially conservative lot. So let’s forgive them for thinking us newbie transplants are a little strange and not quite right.

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But all bets are off for the rest of us who moved here in search of Hoyle-free horizons. We colored outside the lines of our respective cultures, and were just crazy enough to move to the world’s most isolated landmass at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. I think Pahoa is a better place for it.

After living through two disasters in just the past three months, you’d think I’d be ready to pack up and run for the hills. Amazingly these disasters have had the opposite effect: after being on the receiving end of so many kindnesses–through hurricane Iselle and now this sputtering lava flow–I’ve fallen deeply in love with my community.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Pahoa has more than its share of warts: crime, poverty, alcohol and meth addiction, spousal abuse, homelessness—the same stuff we had back on the mainland. So if you’re looking for trouble in Pahoa–or anywhere in Puna for that matter–it’s easy enough to find.

But if you’re looking for good-hearted people who have your back when the power goes out or the lava hits the fan, well, they’re even easier to find, and sometimes they find you. (Learned this firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle, when on three different occasions during a 5-day power outage, folks showed up at our front gate with free ice, two of them complete strangers.)

No matter what happens with our ongoing lava flow, no regrets moving here: so much good has come to my family, so many new friendships formed, such a rich, meaningful life we live. Did I mention the weather is awesome? No, we’re not going anywhere.

And if my dad were alive today he’d tell me what a dumbass I was to live at the foot of an erupting volcano in a house anchored to a concrete slab sitting in the path of a lava flow. If he put it that way I’d have to agree with him. But I’d remind him that I don’t play according to Hoyle either, and he’d understand–at least I’d like to think so.

Stay tuned for more ramblings on Pahoa. If you like classic rock from the 60s and 70s, check out these two jams we stumbled onto in our town’s main parking lot behind Luquin’s one lucky evening.

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We ended up hanging with a bunch of old hippies, the real deal. (Unlike dad, I’m totally chill with the hippies). Together we took a musical trip down memory lane while we lamented the passing of Pahoa, now looking like a premature eulogy with the flow front stalled. But here’s what things looked like from town back then!

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What the clips below mean to me, is that Pahoa has the magic–the mana–to make a group of strangers hold hands and feel like old friends. (And please forgive the dark image, I took this at night with an iphone; but hopefully the spirit of the moment comes through):

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014