Category Archives: culture

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:


Here’s the Japanese version:


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.)


And the Japanese version…


Hope these visuals help.



The Cross-Cultural Communication Model


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:


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.


Hope you find the model and these examples useful.

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


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


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:

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?”



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.”


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.