Category Archives: cross-cultural management

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.

 

 

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The Cross-Cultural Communication Model

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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. Hall

I recently resurrected a cross-cultural communication model that I developed years ago. It’s an elegant way to communicate not only the limited role of language in the communication process in general, but also the importance of hidden differences that too often prevent effective communication from happening. The Edward T. Hall quote above highlights the importance of the adage, “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Below are three charts. The first is the general communication model (in Japanese & English). The next two charts depict a concrete (and realistic) scenario that I plugged into the model (one in English, the other in Japanese).

Even concepts that seem simple on the surface can be far more complex than we imagine, and can lead to serious cross-cultural misunderstandings.

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To quote the late and great Peter Drucker:

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Here’s an example of a deeply rooted cross-cultural misunderstanding even in a seemingly simple interaction.

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Here’s the Japanese version.

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Hope you find the model and these examples useful.

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.

Intercultural Twilight Zone Hits a Milestone

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The Intercultural Twilight Zone just hit a milestone: 100,000 hits.

Granted, lots of those hits were bogus bots, or seekers of illicit material (boy they must’ve been disappointed when they stumbled onto my anthropological ramblings without the naked pictures), or perhaps fans of the Twilight Zone series?

I didn’t set out to accumulate x number of hits when I started writing my blog in 2008. I started blogging because writing is a therapeutic outlet for me, and it’s an incredible feeling to know you’ve connected with people through words. (You know it when you get lots of hits on a given post and when people take time to comment.) It’s worth mentioning that I intended at one time to write another book, but have found blogging much more attractive. Why? Instant publishing, instant feedback, instant gratification, and I can write whatever I want.

A big mahalo to all my subscribers and to everyone who takes time to read my ramblings.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Mending Fences & Connecting Cultures in Japanese Overseas Subsidiaries

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The client approached me for help. Tensions were high, productivity was low, the American staff felt disrespected, and Japanese managers were perceived as arrogant and unwilling to adapt their management style to American culture.

Same old story.

This was going to be a tough gig. But the burden was on the client to make it meaningfulMy job was not to solve their problems, rather, to help them define their current situation so they could solve their own problems.

The endgame in my workshops is to get both sides talking to each other without all the accumulated misunderstandings and accompanying emotional baggage muddying the waters. It’s kind of like marriage counseling, except without the marriage part.

I spend several hours un-muddying the waters by separately educating Japanese and non-Japanese staffs on each other’s cultures. Then I bring them together for a third session at the end where a meaningful dialogue can unfold. That’s when things get real.

At the beginning of each separate session, I have participants make lists of what they enjoy about working with the other culture and also what drives them crazy. No surprise the “drives-them-crazy” lists are always longer than the “enjoy” lists, a telling statement about human nature. I also spend a good part of the separate sessions explaining the meanings, misunderstandings and cultural ramifications of their own comments, with a quick history and culture lesson thrown in for good measure. This provides badly needed context. Then in preparation for the final joint session, I translate both lists—Japanese and English—into the other language so each side clearly understands what the other side is saying about them.

Sounds dangerous, right? That’s what I thought the first time I launched this program fifteen years ago. I’m happy to report that not once have I had to break up a fight. But it’s not a walk in the park either. It’s a grind, in most cases with no single definitive turning point.

But each workshop takes on a life of its own, so I have to improvise. The one constant is education. I build on that with dialogue, self-reflection exercises (“hansei-kai”), and a brainstorming session at the end to invite ideas from participants on improving relations. If I have a “go-to” technique, it’s humor, a natural output of discussions that take place in the final joint session. If you can get both sides laughing together, then you’re almost home.

Sometimes humor even happens by accident.

I once conducted a workshop in which the Americans complained—as they always do—that the Japanese held “secret meetings,” implying the Japanese staff was intentionally withholding information from them. The expression “secret meetings” took the Japanese managers by surprise; they assumed as a matter of course that behind-the-scenes negotiating was how decisions were supposed to be made.

The American participants learned in the training that these offline meetings were not aimed at shutting them out (well, most weren’t), that their Japanese counterparts routinely held small, offline meetings even in Japan when working exclusively with fellow Japanese. This revelation alone went a long way in placating the Americans.

During the joint session, a Japanese work group addressed the “secret meetings” complaint. Not knowing the proper English words to describe their offline meetings, they defaulted to the Americans’ description. With a straight face, a Japanese manager faced the American audience and proclaimed in earnest, “We are so sorry. It is true that we Japanese have many secret meetings. So our countermeasure will be to reduce the number of secret meetings!”

To the Japanese presenter’s utter surprise, the Americans burst out laughing. They understood from context what he was trying to say. But imagine if context had not been provided. I might’ve had to break up my first fight.

But the participants in this particular engagement were a tougher crowd. In the initial Americans-only session, the tension was palpable. It would take most of the session to get the American managers’ collective heads wrapped around the causes of their problems. Still, no one was ready to sing Kum Ba Yah.

In contrast, the Japanese session started out completely tension free, but only because the Japanese managers were oblivious. When they learned just how resentful their American counterparts were, they grew visibly nervous.

Sometimes nervous is good.

Imagine my glee when the final joint session took a sudden, positive turn. After hearing numerous complaints from frustrated American counterparts on how they felt “disrespected” and “unappreciated,” the senior Japanese executive asked me to interpret. Here’s what he said:

“I suspect that I am guilty of offending you, and for that I want to offer my sincere apology. We Japanese come from a tiny island with no natural resources. Your town has kindly allowed us to build our factory here in the middle of this huge, wonderful market, and it has greatly benefitted our parent company. We are very grateful for that. So we have absolutely no intention of insulting or disrespecting you. We will do our best moving forward to change that perception, and would like very much to work together. We are on the same team, have the same goals, and want to work together as one team.”

I could almost hear the tension escaping from the room. The Americans immediately softened; it was written all over their faces.

We didn’t sing Kum Ba Yah, but the rest of the session was fun, engaging, and productive. They even started laughing at my jokes. Everyone left the room at the end of the day with the agreement that they’d put more effort into communicating, cooperating, and socializing outside of work. They also agreed to hold similar joint sessions periodically to ensure proper follow up and keep the lines of communication open.

In the end, the client made the session profoundly meaningful. I can’t overstate the importance of the senior Japanese executive’s apology in winning over the Americans, a testament to the power of humility in building bridges.

These tougher engagements are especially rewarding because they are so challenging; they are welcome reminders of my good fortune to work in a field that mends fences and connects people.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo Jumbo

That’s how you know you’re within a walled city, the jargon. They’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the world and are speaking a jargon only they can really understand.” –Robert Pirsig

The first anthropology book that didn’t put me to sleep was Takie Sugiyama Lebra’s Japanese Patterns of Behavior. At the time I had been in Japan over four years and had a reasonable grasp of spoken Japanese. But I was still confused about what I perceived as contradictory behavior by my Japanese hosts. To wit:

How could they be so polite in social interactions then turn into maniacs on the train? Why so serious and reserved at work then hammered and goofy at the karaoke bar? How could they be modern and scientific, and yet so beholden to ancient superstitions and rituals? What would make them warm and caring towards some people, but cold and distant toward others? And why so vague in their routine communication style but no qualms about bluntly pointing out you’ve gained a few pounds?

To Dr. Lebra’s credit, her book singlehandedly took four years of accumulated confusion and sorted most of it out in a single reading. Lightbulbs clicked on with every turn of the page, and the antics of my Japanese hosts suddenly started making sense. It was a breakthrough book for sure, and I’m thankful to Dr. Lebra for the burst of enlightenment.

But man did she make me wade through some dry, academic mumbo jumbo to get to the Promised Land. Had I not been in Japan at the time—had I not had a vested interest in figuring out my Japanese hosts’ behavior—it’s doubtful I’d have made it past the first page. But don’t believe me, read this snippet and judge for yourself:

Social interaction or relationships can best be analyzed by singling out the central actor then identifying his social object. I shall call the central actor “Ego” and his social object “Alter,” both terms being capitalized to signify their social emphasis as distinct from their psychological implications… Alter, who is the main object of preoccupation for the Japanese Ego, may be in regular contact with Ego or may be inaccessible except on special occasion and thus only recalled from memory. Alter may be a single person or a group; Alter and Ego may be of equal standing or hierarchically graded; their relationship may be lifelong or only transient, a desirable one Ego wants to maintain or an undesirable one from which Ego wishes to extricate himself. We can think of many other variations, yet they are all identical with respect to social preoccupation.” (Takie Sugiyama Lebra)

My brain hurts reading this even thirty years later. There must be a simpler way to convey the same message in plain English—or plain any language—preferably with a story or anecdote to breathe some life into it.

As cryptic as Lebra’s style is, at least her subject matter had enough juice to keep me going til the end. But as a friend once quipped after reading it, “You sometimes wonder if she’s talking about people or specimens.”

But this is not about Dr. Lebra—it’s about the mumbo jumbo in all the literature of cultural anthropology. Check out this gem from the first anthropology book that actually did put me to sleep, “Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction”:

In studies of classification, both in developmental and cross-cultural psychology, a good deal of interest has centered on two aspects of the subject’s performance: (1) the particular attribute the subject uses as the criterion of similarity (this is comparable to interest in the stimulus dimension in perceptual preference studies), and (2) whether or not he uses a single attribute consistently as the basis for groupings. Findings with respect to these questions have provided much of the empirical foundation for theories of cognitive development that stress progression from a kind of thinking that is concrete and context-bound to thinking that is abstract and rule-governed.”

I get the point but need a drink now! Can’t imagine anyone outside the academic walls of cultural anthropology exercising their freewill to read this. And if the average Joes in our global world don’t get this knowledge—if it’s only intended for the eyes and ears of other mumbo-jumbo-speaking academics—then really, what good is it?

Indeed anthropology has worked hard to shroud itself in complexity, aided by the use of a cryptic language developed and spoken only by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and folks who just want to sound smart. And it begs the question, why would that be?

Why All the Anthropo-Mumbo-Jumbo?

I blame Franz Boas, the immortalized “father of American anthropology,” for trying to make cultural anthropology into a Victorian science, when it was, is, and always will be, the subjective study of humans by humans.

Boas’ bias toward science makes perfect sense in light of his background. A product of the 19th century, he was trained in mathematics and received his doctorate in physics in Germany at a time when scientists were flirting with rock star status. (Einstein the most famous of them all.) Boas would go on to teach at Columbia University, and in 1899 establish the very first Anthropology Ph.D. Program in the U.S.

One of Boas’ many claims to fame was that he pioneered a method of anthropological investigation modeled after the hard sciences. Philosopher Robert Pirsig explains the problem with casting anthropology as a science:

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages. The result has been theoretical chaos.”

Science or no science, the reality is that anthropology aspired—and still aspiresto be a science, which implies there was doubt from the beginning about its scientific legitimacy. After all, physics and biology don’t aspire to be a science, everyone knows they just are. But poor, insecure anthropology, craving the legitimacy of science from its modern inception, created a language of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo that gave rise to the dry, lifeless, cryptic literature anthropology students are forced to read today. And we all suffer for it.

My issues with the mumbo jumbo aside, Boas deserves his props for the enduring contribution he made to cultural anthropology in very positive ways. His big claim to fame was successfully applying scientific methods to debunking “scientific racism,” the application of what was purportedly science, to classifying people according to race, then ranking them up accordingly. Boas rejected outright the idea of biological predispositions and countered with the theory that social learning was the primary driver of differences amongst the various cultures of the world. His theory stuck, and it’s a cornerstone of modern anthropology today.

We can also thank Boas for groundbreaking research that led to the anthropological principle of “cultural relativism,” the belief that civilization is, in Boas’ own words, “not something absolute, but…relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” This implies that cultures cannot be ranked objectively, as each human observer perceives the world through the lens of his or her respective culture and makes subjective judgments accordingly (interestingly a claim in itself that contradicts the notion of anthropology as a science).

So acknowledging that there’s lots to love about Boas and his impact on anthropology, just imagine how much cooler it’d be without the jargon.

In fairness to Boas he had plenty of accomplices in creating and advancing the language of anthropology, namely, his student minions Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Alfred Kroeber. Collectively they took their mentor’s staunch commitment to objectivity, science and all its accompanying scientific jargon, and raised it to new heights of inscrutability.

So we’ve identified our key culprits, the creators of the jargon-filled gobblygook language of anthropology that endures today. At its core is a yearning by an insecure field of study for the same legitimacy commanded by the traditional sciences. Those of us inside the walls of anthropology who continue using the language of mumbo-mumbo, are complicit in scaring off the very people who could use the knowledge the most.

Earning Our Keep

If I were king I’d ban all mumbo jumbo, gobblygook and balderdash from anthropology, and require all my subjects to use simple, clear language in all their communications.

Unfortunately the odds of me being king of anything are about the same as the average Joe reading Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Not gonna happen. The writing style is just too intimidating.

It’s tough enough connecting cultures for a living. Folks in the cross-cultural field have the added chore of connecting the cryptic language of insecure academics with clients who need to communicate with living, breathing human beings. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. And this is where we earn our keep: spinning mumbo-jumbo into productive human connections.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013