Category Archives: cross-cultural

Humility in a Culture That Rewards Tooting Your Own Horn

ConfuciusQt.jpg

I recently read an insightful article titled When Humility Hinders Career Progress. The article featured the struggle of an Asian-Australian man in reconciling his value on humility with his career ambitions in a culture that exalts self-promotion. (For the record, the value on self-promotion applies even more to American culture.) The story struck a chord and underscored the power of cultural values in influencing what we perceive as “good.” And it reminded me of a personal experience I had years ago that inspired a shift in my own values.

It was 1978. I was a clueless 20-year-old kid living the good life in Yamato Japan, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies. I knew just enough Japanese at the time to be dangerous; I could order a beer, buy a train ticket, and negotiate that elusive phone number from a pretty girl. Beyond that, I was lost.

One evening, while on a mission to discover signs of nightlife in our sleepy little town, my buddy Dave and I stumbled into a drinking establishment called Bonanza. About the size of a walk-in closet, Bonanza was run by Taro, a tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and disheveled hair, someone you’d expect to see in a biker bar. Sitting across the bar was a bearded Japanese man with long wavy hair and a gentle demeanor. Taro introduced him as “Keni.”

With our limited Japanese, their broken English, some creative gesturing, and a few beers for good measure, we somehow made a connection. Our conversation drifted to the topic of music. That’s when we discovered a shared passion for the blues.

When I mentioned that my friend Dave played harmonica and had a few harps in his back pocket, Taro pulled out a guitar from behind the bar and handed it to Keni.

As Keni tuned the guitar, I naively asked if he knew how to play the blues.

“I’m still learning,” he answered softly.

Taking his words at face value, I remember worrying that the poor guy might embarrass himself trying to keep up with my talented harmonica-tooting friend.

I’ll never forget what happened next. When Keni started playing, my worries were immediately replaced with awe. His power, technique and musical soul blew me away. Here’s my analysis of what was happening below the linguistic (and musical) surface.

HumbleBlues.jpg

Viewing the situation through my young American eyes, Keni’s humility seemed way out of whack with his talent level. This gifted artist had just downplayed his ability and then let his performance do the talking. It was an aha moment for me on so many levels, both humbling and cool beyond words. And I remember wondering: If this wonderfully gifted artist is being humble, then what about me?

With that simple thought came a tectonic shift in my worldview. It was the first time in my life that I had entertained the thought that humility just might be a good thing, and it has remained a source of inspiration since.

That humble blues musician eventually became a dear friend, my mentor, a big brother, Japanese language teacher, and guitar instructor. Forty years later, we are still close friends.

Thanks to Keni, my Japanese is much better now. My guitar playing is…good enough to be dangerous. 😉

Below is a clip of us jamming four decades later. Dave is on harmonica, Keni on lead (on the left), Tatsumi also on lead (in the back), Hatchan on slide, and Tim on rhythm. Enjoy.

 

Advertisements

When Japanese & American Decision-Making Styles Collide

druckerquotedmkng.jpg

When it comes to managing and preventing friction in the mixed Japanese-American workplace, one of the toughest nuts to crack is reconciling the two cultures’ starkly different approaches to decision-making. Consider what happens on a human level when Japanese and American decision-making styles collide.

American Gripes About Japanese Decision-Making

In my cross-cultural seminars, I like to kick off sessions with small group activities, at which time I ask each group to collectively make a list of what they enjoy about working with the other side and also what drives them crazy. (On both sides of the cultural divide, the “drives-them-crazy” comments nearly always outnumber the “enjoy” comments, a telling glimpse into human nature.) The comments are as interesting as they are enlightening. Common American gripes include:

“It takes forever for Japanese to make decisions.”

“Japanese want too much data—’analysis paralysis.'”

“Japanese have ‘secret meetings’ that exclude Americans.”

“We (Americans) go to meetings to debate an issue to make the best possible decision, but the Japanese always make decisions prior to the meeting.”

“Japanese don’t involve Americans in the decision-making process.”

“Japanese don’t like to take risks.”

Japanese Have Plenty of Gripes

On the other side of the cultural divide, consider what Japanese managers say about Americans:

“Take action without understanding the problem.

“Don’t gather enough data and don’t conduct root-cause analysis.

“Don’t practice plan-do-check-adjust.”

“Aren’t data-driven and instead prefer to act on their feelings.”

“Don’t take time to understand the current situation.”

“Take shortcuts through trial-error without proper follow-up, a risky approach that can create unintended consequences.”

“Are specialists, take action without consulting with other departments, and don’t try to view problems from various perspectives.”

“Take risks lightly then don’t accept responsibility when failures occur.”

As someone with one foot in each culture, my first observation is that both sides don’t always practice what they preach. I also happen to believe that there is some truth to what each side is saying. Stating the obvious, these gripes are based on perceptions heavily influenced by culture—the “truth” as each side sees it. It is open to debate on how accurate each side is in its assessment of the other side.

The intent of this article is not to take sides. Depending on the context, one could argue that in some situations, the “American way” (whatever that means) works, and other times the “Japanese way” works. (It’s worth noting here that former Japanese bosses used to swear up and down that they were just practicing their own version of the “Deming way”; Deming, of course, was an American.)

My thought has always been that if someone can figure out how to combine the disciplined Japanese cross-functional approach to defining problems with American efficiency and creativity, it would be a game-changer. Easier said than done, but a worthy aspiration to pursue.

Be that as it may, below is my analysis of the key disconnects at play below the linguistic surface when Japanese and my compatriots talk about “making a decision.” Unless these disconnects are understood by both sides, the twain will never meet.

ic-commmdldecisons.jpg

commmdlexjps.jpg

How to Disappoint Your Japanese Customer Without Even Trying

mistake-3019036_960_720.jpg

It’s a tall order to please visitors from a country like Japan where customers are routinely treated like God. No surprise that more often than not, disappointment is exactly what Japanese travelers feel when they venture abroad.

Not that Japan’s service is flawless. If I really want to pick nits, their service can be overly scripted, lacking in flexibility, and sometimes downright robotic. Still, the average level of service in Japan is unmatched anywhere in the world; servers are helpful, courteous, and laser-focused on anticipating the customer’s needs, albeit to an annoying fault sometimes.

Over the past 15 years, I have conducted numerous workshops on Japanese expectations of customer service for hundreds of employees working for Hawaii’s finest hotels. My message to them is always the same: Understand the wants and needs of your Japanese guests, but never, ever try to act Japanese. Then I add, just for effect, “If you try to act too Japanese, you’ll creep them out!” That usually drives home my point and gets a laugh in the process.

The delicate balance between making proper adjustments and being authentic is a sweet spot that’s tough to hit. The trick is understanding Japanese guests’ expectations, then making adjustments that come from a place of honesty. It’s a goal well worth pursuing. For just like the rest of us, the Japanese crave authenticity.

Today’s featured interaction analyzes key gaps in expectations that can drive a wedge between a Japanese guest and even the most well-intentioned service provider—without the provider realizing the guest was offended! (Miffed Japanese customers tend to not openly complain—while they quietly stew in their own juice.) The burden is on each service provider to decide how it wants its employees to deal with these gaps, but the disconnects must be understood before the organization can attempt to pursue that elusive sweet spot alluded to above.

This particular scenario happened before my very eyes at a luxury hotel in Hawai’i. I can assure you that the same scenario plays out every day in every context imaginable, certainly where Japanese international travelers are concerned. The chart below shows my analysis of the culture gaps below the surface.

I Need Help.jpg

Cross-Cultural Broken Promises: One Man’s Reason is Another Man’s Excuse

no-excuses.jpgJapanese often complain that when promises are broken, Americans “make excuses.” Many Americans, on the other hand, believe that when one breaks a promise, an explanation is warranted. In an effort to better understand this gap in thinking, I once asked a Japanese client what the difference was between a “reason” and an “excuse.” His answer was both funny and incisive: “If the Japanese person agrees with your explanation, then it’s a ‘reason’; if not, it’s an ‘excuse.'” It is worth noting here that the most formal Japanese apology, “Moshiwake gozaimasen,” literally means “There is no excuse,” which in essence forbids the offending party from even thinking about making an excuse.

Today’s anecdote is based on a true story that illustrates, in concrete terms, how one man’s reason can be another man’s excuse.

About ten years ago, my wife and I flew to Honolulu from our home on the Big Island of Hawaii to meet up with friends from Japan. We rendezvoused for lunch at a restaurant in Waikiki then accompanied them to their hotel to check in. Our plan was to get them settled in their room before venturing out to enjoy the sites and sounds of the island.

When we arrived at the hotel, the lobby was packed wall-to-wall with people. A long line was queued up in front of the check-in counter with just one clerk on duty. We found a place to wait with our friend’s wife while her husband got in line to check in.

It took almost ten minutes for our friend to finally wind his way to the front of the line. After a several-second interaction with the clerk, he abruptly turned and walked toward us with a demeanor teetering between anger and puzzlement. Something was clearly amiss, and we soon found out what it was: He couldn’t check in because the computer was down.

Our friend was clearly miffed. The first words out of his mouth were, “This would never happen in Japan.”

He wasn’t angry about the computer outage. Nor was he implying that in Japan computers never go down or even that mistakes don’t happen. He was frustrated and disappointed by the way he was treated.

He wondered aloud why the clerk hadn’t apologized; why the hotel manager wasn’t on the floor letting guests know in advance about the outage before they wasted their time standing in line; and he couldn’t believe that the hotel wouldn’t provide guests with vouchers so that they could at least enjoy a drink at the bar while waiting until the computer glitch was fixed. But mostly, he was disappointed that the hotel hadn’t trained its staff to check in guests as a back-up plan for when the computer went down.

Anyone who has lived in—or even just visited—Japan for any length of time has felt my friend’s frustration on some level. Indeed, once you get spoiled by Japanese customer service, it can ruin you for life!

This anecdote illustrates not only the different standards of service in Japan compared to my country—and dare I say, the rest of the world—it speaks to profound differences in how people of different cultures expect service providers to behave when a major hiccup hits the fan. In the case of Japan, four words summarize the difference: There is no excuse!

A similar computer hiccup occurred on a much larger scale in 2006, when a 6.6 earthquake rocked the Big Island of Hawaii. It was so powerful that it caused power interruptions throughout the state, which affected major airports on all the islands. As a result, all our airports’ “indispensable” computers were down prompting flight cancellations around the state. Except in the case of Japan Airlines.

Why was JAL able to avoid canceling their flight out of Honolulu while other airlines weren’t? For starters, JAL leadership did not accept a computer outage as a reason not to deliver on its promise to get customers to their destinations in a timely manner. (Keeping promises is a big deal in Japan, especially when it involves the honorable customer.) The other reason is that JAL employees were trained (and had the will and wherewithal) to manually issue tickets and perform all other functions necessary to get their airplane off the ground. No excuses!

Below is my analysis of the hotel check-in fiasco described above, but it applies to just about any situation in which a Japanese customer is inconvenienced.

NoExcuses.jpg

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

Why Do Americans Say “My Lovely Wife”?

Americans think it’s odd, even mean, when Japanese men introduce their spouses as their  “foolish wife” (うちの愚妻). It’s not that the Japanese don’t love their spouses, they just express it differently. And while younger Japanese don’t use this expression very much these days, I also have never heard a Japanese man—young or old—publicly shower their spouses with glowing accolades.

Which brings us to the flip side of this cultural phenomenon. I’m occasionally asked by Japanese participants at my seminars why Americans, when introducing their wives, say, “This is my lovely wife.” I usually answer with a joke: “Because we have to!” Some laugh, but some of them take me seriously. Check out my analysis below.

(Note that I’m fortunate to be married to a lovely Japanese lady. If I ever introduced her as “my lovely wife” she’d likely punch me or, at the very least, ask what the hell I was saying. Fortunately, she doesn’t read my blog, so I’m safe. ;))

LovelyWife.jpg

 

How Not to Refuse a Drink in Japan

Anyone who has lived in Japan or just deals with the Japanese on a regular basis knows that social attitudes toward alcohol consumption are different here.

That said, it appears attitudes are changing and that younger Japanese are less interested in drinking, a positive development in my opinion. And yet I still hear Japanese friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who like to imbibe jokingly say that they are “alcoholics.” In fact, I just heard it last week at a local drinking establishment. It reminded me of a nomikai (drinking party) a few years back when I had to interpret a conversation between a Japanese host and recovering alcoholic named “John.” Below is my analysis of what was likely going through the Japanese host’s head at the time.

Keep in mind that the scenario below is a great example of how not to refuse a drink in Japan. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have handled the situation differently. What’s my advice to non-drinkers who want to politely avoid a drink when it’s offered in Japan without getting into the details of alcoholism and what it means? Simply say, “I’m allergic to alcohol,” “I’m on medication,” or “I can’t drink due to health reasons.” One of those polite lies usually gets the desired response.

Alcoholic.jpg

Why Do North Americans Quit Japanese Companies?

Since the late 1980s, I’ve spoken with hundreds of North American HR managers employed by Japanese-owned subsidiaries. A large percentage of them routinely express concern about the high turnover rate at their companies, how Japanese management fails to grasp the reasons employees leave, and their unwillingness to take any kind of meaningful action to rectify the matter.

After training literally thousands of Japanese managers in the U.S., I’ve learned that one of the most common misconceptions Japanese have about Americans is that they “quit their jobs because they only care about money.” Unfortunately, when I present Japanese managers with the facts, many don’t believe me. Indeed, deeply rooted assumptions can be more stubborn than facts.

My own anecdotal data collection overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that money isn’t the main reason for high turnover, and that it’s not even in the top five. Truth is Japanese subsidiaries tend to be very competitive with pay and benefits. Feedback from literally thousands of American and Canadian employees who have attended my seminars over the years indicates that while money is not unimportant, money alone is not enough to lure them away if they like their jobs and get along with coworkers.  Most just want to do meaningful work, be appreciated, have a say in decisions, and have fun.

It goes without saying that not all Japanese companies are created equal. And many Japanese managers sincerely want to do the right thing, but their hands are tied by the decision-makers in the parent company back in Japan. I have also worked with excellent Japanese organizations that do not have excessive turnover issues and have succeeded in retaining talent. But sadly, I’ve found it to be more the exception than the rule.

Below is my analysis of communication gaps that can cloud this issue. What do you think?

J-CoTurnover.jpg