When I conduct cross-cultural training in mixed-culture Japanese subsidiaries in the U.S., before bringing the two sides together for face-to-face discussions, I always lay the groundwork by first educating Japanese and American employees in separate seminars.
Each training session begins with a group activity in which I ask the audience to make a list of the “positives” about working with the other culture and also the “difficulties.” Not surprisingly, in nearly every workshop I’ve ever done for both Japanese and Americans, the “difficulties” list is longer than the “positives.” It is, after all, human nature to focus on the negatives.
With this backdrop, imagine my utter surprise when, for the first time in my career as a trainer, both Japanese and American employees who participated in one particular workshop listed more “positives” than “difficulties.”
Basking in a pleasant state of shock, I mentioned to the American audience that it was unprecedented to see more positives than difficulties. And the results compelled me to wonder aloud why they got along so well with their Japanese counterparts.
Without hesitation, an American manager raised his hand and said, “It might have something to do with me hosting a Texas-Hold-’em party at my house once a month. I always invite the Japanese staff and they love it. They bring their own drinks, and I’ve noticed that the more they drink, the better their English gets! We always have a great time, and it really builds camaraderie…”
Building team chemistry through socialization isn’t surprising in itself. But for non-Japanese who don’t speak Japanese, the prospect of socializing with Japanese coworkers can be a difficult challenge indeed, especially when shy Japanese colleagues with limited English skills are involved. It turns out that some simple solutions exist after all: organize social events around a game or fun activity that can be enjoyed without the need for spoken language, then sit back and watch the magic happen!
The “Texas-Hold-’em” party cited above is but one example of an effective solution to overcome the language barrier. Rather than create an awkward situation where Japanese and non-Japanese are staring across the table at each other while fumbling with the spoken word, instead focus everyone on a common activity that removes the need to speak at all. Alcohol can also have the effect of lowering inhibitions which, in turn, can lure shy Japanese participants out of their shells.
The Pluses and Minuses of Drinking Parties
This is where I add the important disclaimer that introducing alcohol into the mix comes with risks, more so when it is used irresponsibly. While in some cases alcohol can indeed encourage and promote smooth social interactions, it also carries with it the potential to backfire.
The fact is that in recent decades, American attitudes toward alcohol consumption have shifted dramatically. In the 1970s the “martini lunch” was not an uncommon way to entertain clients. In contrast, excessive alcohol consumption is frowned upon today in corporate America, and drinking at lunch is, at worst, a cause for termination, at best, a call for compulsory rehab.
This underscores the importance for Japanese professionals who work abroad to understand the different attitudes of other cultures toward alcohol consumption, especially in the case of America.
To cite a concrete example, I often hear Japanese friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who enjoy alcohol jokingly say that they are “alcoholics.” Some are truly alcoholics while others are simply social drinkers. A personal experience tells the story of how misunderstandings can occur when these different social attitudes are not understood by each side.
Several years ago I participated in a Japanese client’s nomikai (drinking party) where an American named “John” asked me to interpret for him. John had privately mentioned to me that he was a recovering alcoholic. So when he was offered a drink at this particular gathering (as is the custom in Japan), he wanted me to explain why he was declining the host’s offer.
The Japanese host who was trying to pour beer into John’s glass completely misinterpreted John’s refusal as a humorous way of indicating that he actually wanted to drink. This misunderstanding compelled the well-intentioned Japanese host to push even harder to fill John’s glass. I eventually convinced the Japanese to back off, but had I not been there to explain to John the cultural difference in attitudes toward alcohol consumption, I fear that John would have thought less of his well-intentioned host.
Below is my analysis of this cross-cultural misunderstanding.
Breaking It Down
Since it is common in Japan to refer to oneself as an “alcoholic” in conveying one’s fondness for drinking, the Japanese host completely misread John’s intentions. The unspoken assumption behind the Japanese host’s words is that alcoholism is not a disease, but rather, a character flaw.
In this instance, John’s response directly reflected his intended message. He felt that since he was refusing a drink offered to him with good intentions, out of politeness, he owed his Japanese host an honest explanation. In light of the communication pitfalls under these circumstances, an easier way that John could have refused the drink would have been to simply tell a polite lie, for example, by saying he was allergic to alcohol or that he was on medication that didn’t mix well with alcohol, etc. Either claim would have mitigated the situation with minimal explanation.
In short, the culture gap was due largely to both sides not understanding the hidden differences in social attitudes toward alcohol consumption.
While I acknowledge that private, unofficial gatherings involving alcohol can certainly reduce inhibitions and promote social interactions, I would discourage alcohol consumption at official company functions and instead encourage organizers to consider fun activities that promote interactions designed to reduce the need for verbal communication. Whether it’s a card party, bowling event, softball game, or karaoke event, conversation will happen naturally if all participants are focused on a common, fun activity. Doing so without alcohol mitigates the potential for inappropriate behavior, eliminates the danger of driving while under the influence, and reduces the risk of potential lawsuits.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2020