Category Archives: Japanese customer service

Hawaiian Airlines’ Secret to Success in Japan: They Didn’t Try to Be Japanese

Untitled.jpgA few weeks ago I was on a local podcast called “Now & Zen.” The podcaster, Andrew Hankinson, created a short bonus episode because he couldn’t fit this segment in. (I’m just a damn chatterbox – can’t help it since I come from a long line of Irish talkers. 😉 ) If you’ve got 18 minutes to spare and want to hear about a great cross-cultural success story, check out this episode by clicking on the image displayed above.

© Tim Sullivan 2020

Now & Zen: My First Podcast Appearance


I was recently a guest on a podcast hosted by Andrew Hankinson called “Now and Zen.” For anyone interested in cultural differences between Japan and the West, please give it a listen and, if you enjoyed it, a positive review.

The Dangerous Japanese Beer-Pouring Ritual

The 5th installment of my video blog.

An Inspiring Japanese Concept to Get You Through Tough Times

The 4th installment of Japanese Insight’s video blog series on the art of Kikubari. Enjoy.

© Tim Sullivan 2020

My Approach to Cross-Cultural Communication Training

Like most of you, I’m stuck at home dealing with this pandemic. To avoid being a couch potato, I’m trying to stay busy and productive. For the first time ever, I’ve been hosting online seminars and am thoroughly enjoying it!

On a whim, I decided yesterday to make a video to introduce myself and briefly discuss my approach to cross-cultural training. As you’ll see, the video is targeted at my LinkedIn audience, but it’s suitable for the general public as well.

My goal was to do the video under 5 minutes. As you’ll see, I failed miserably! (9 minutes…can’t help it, I come from a long line of Irish talkers!) Apologies for the length. My goal is to try and keep it under 5 minutes in future videos. (“Try” being the operative word ;). Feedback is welcome.

In the meantime, stay safe everyone!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2020

Special Offer: A Free Cross-Cultural Communication Webinar to Beat the Covid-19 Blues

CrossCultMdl JE.jpg

If there was ever a time we needed to pull together as a species, this is it.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out a way I might make a small contribution to helping others during these tough times. This morning, while sipping on a stout cup of Joe, an idea struck me. I’m putting my caffeine-inspired idea out to the hive-mind to see if there might be interest.

My thought is to offer a free, online, Japan-focused cross-culture webinar, at least over the next month and possibly beyond. My content options would include general information along with a focus on cross-cultural management and/or customer service.

The webinar would be informal, conducted one-on-one: I won’t wear a suit (and will probably be in my pajamas;)). We would cover various issues and topics as if we’re two old friends chatting over a beer. In our pajamas. (If you want to drink during the seminar, be my guest. If you want to drink in your pajamas, even better. :)) I don’t plan on rushing through the material. If we don’t finish it all but have fun, then we could conceivably schedule a follow-up. Or not. We’d play it by ear.

I acknowledge that among my contacts, there are many knowledgeable, Japan-savvy folks equal to or beyond my level of expertise, in which case, we would exchange war stories, perspectives, and basically take turns being the teacher.


Even in social-distancing mode, my time is limited: I still only have 24 hours in my day, with other responsibilities which include helping take care of my elderly mother-in-law. For this reason, I need to prioritize who is eligible. I’m a bit rusty on the webinar front (haven’t done one in years), so I would start off with English-only webinars. (I will consider expanding to Japanese language in the future.) I would need to set up screen-sharing, so any help on that front would be appreciated.  

I would give priority to:

  1. English-speaking business folks currently residing in Japan who could benefit from my services
  2. LinkedIn connections
  3. People I’ve built an online relationship with and would like to get to know better
  4. People who could conceivably promote my services once this crisis is past us.
  5. If you’re a competitor, my inclination is to disqualify you, however, I would make exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

What’s in it for me?

  1. I don’t need income to survive at this stage of my life, and it feels good to contribute, especially during tough times.
  2. I see this as a chance to network, develop deeper relationships with connections I’ve made online, exchange war stories, compare notes, and have fun.
  3. This is an educational opportunity for me as well.
  4. I gain much satisfaction from helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect.
  5. While there are absolutely no obligations or “strings attached,” if webinar participants see value in what I have to offer, this could potentially promote my brand and services in the future.

So hive-mind, what are your thoughts? PM me on LinkedIn with comments and inquiries.

In the meantime, please stay safe, wash your hands, and maintain a healthy social distance. Most importantly, keep your heads up. We’ll get through this. Together.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2020

What Good Is It If the Dogs Don’t Eat It?


Years ago I worked with a brilliant consultant and mentor who was a great storyteller.

He relayed a story to me about a participant in one of his seminars who happened to be an engineer. The engineer was lamenting how his department had designed an “excellent product,” one that, unfortunately, wasn’t selling well. He wondered aloud if perhaps the Marketing department hadn’t done its job.

After probing for more information, my friend learned that the product in question had been designed with no understanding of what the customer wanted. Instead, the engineers decided in isolation what they thought was “cool,” and proceeded to develop what my friend had coined a “LESANS product,” his acronym for “Leading-edge, state-of-the-art, neat shit.” In other words, the engineers had no clue what the market wanted, but the product had lots of cool bells and whistles—cool stuff to nerdy engineers, that is.

My friend proceeded to share a story about a dog food company that had diligently researched the dietary needs of dogs and developed what they thought was the perfect nutritional product for canines. They brought the product to market with great fanfare and anticipation, only to have it fall flat because the dogs wouldn’t eat it.

My friend distilled this phenomenon into a single sentence:

What good is it if the dogs don’t eat it?

In my view, this story works on many levels. As mentioned above, it applies to any business selling a product or service. But it has application far beyond that.

On a personal note, sometimes I write what I think is an awesome article that will garner lots of traffic and “likes,” only to have it fall flat. Other times I write an article that I think is mediocre at best, but it goes viral.

What good is my “great article,” after all, “if the dogs don’t eat it?”

I see the same phenomenon with political parties as well. If a given political party picks the “perfectly qualified candidate,” and that candidate loses, do you blame the political party for betting on the wrong candidate? Or do you blame the voters for not voting for that candidate? I’m inclined to blame the political party because…what good is your perfectly qualified candidate “if the dogs don’t eat it?”

Lastly, more than anything, this concept applies to any kind of written or spoken communication. Edward T. Hall says that intercultural communication is not about “sending the right message,” rather, it’s about “getting a desired response.” Which means that no matter how correct and accurate the content of one’s messsage may be, if the listener doesn’t respond in a desirable way, then…what good is your message “if the dogs don’t eat it?”

Whatever the endeavor, strategy is at the heart of it all—whether it is peddling widgets, writing an article, getting a political candidate elected, or inspiring people with a call to action—none of it is worth a damn if the dogs don’t eat it.

The moral of the story: if you fail at any of these endeavors, resist the temptation to blame the dogs, and instead, reflect on what you could have done differently to get them to eat what you’re selling.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2020





Building Cross-Cultural Teams Through Social Activities (and the Pluses and Minuses of Alcohol Consumption)

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

Communication and “Getting a Desired Response”


One fish says to the other fish, “How’s the water?” The other fish responds, “What the hell is water?”

In a recent Facebook post, a friend commented that different languages have certain words or phrases that don’t translate well into other languages. As an example, she cited the Japanese word “gambatte.” She said that while it’s often translated as “good luck,” it doesn’t convey the exact meaning.

I agree that the most natural translation of “gambatte” (頑張って)is “good luck,” not because it’s an accurate rendering of the literal meaning, but because it tends to elicit the desired response of “arigato” or “thank you.” A closer literal translation of gambatte is actually, “Make your best effort,” or “Give it your best shot.”

Author Robert Whiting used this same example in his book “You Gotta Have Wa” in explaining how interpreters employed by the Yokohama Taiyo Whales baseball organization (now called the “Bay Stars”) struggled to interpret this expression when Japanese upper management would tell American baseball players “gambatte kudasai.” Before they knew better, they initially rendered the expression “gambatte” as, “Please do your best.”

Unfortunately, rather than saying “thank you,” the American players would instead say, “Of course I’ll do my best, I’m a professional!” The interpreters eventually learned through trial and error that if they rendered it as, “Good luck!” then the American ballplayers would respond with “thank you,” which made everyone happy.

This dovetails with anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s definition of cross-cultural communication as “not sending the right message,” but instead, “eliciting a desired response.”

Knowing how to elicit such a desired response requires an understanding of what makes the other person tick. I know, as I learned Hall’s lesson the hard way.

My initial problem when I arrived in Japan (almost 42 years ago) was not simply my ignorance of Japanese culture; it was ignorance of my own culture. By taking for granted my own values and assumptions, I was unconsciously projecting them onto my poor Japanese hosts, a disaster on my part!

After becoming fluent in the language, I went on to major in cultural anthropology and intercultural communication, where I would eventually learn Lao Tzu’s old lesson that “Knowing others is wisdom, but knowing oneself is enlightenment.”

With the wisdom of hindsight, I now understand that I should have learned about culture (mine and theirs) before getting fluent in the language. Truth is that back then, I knew just enough Japanese to be dangerous! Conversely, understanding both self and others allows one to communicate strategically—to competently “elicit desired responses.”

Some might argue that the notion of eliciting a desired response is “manipulative,” and therefore exploitative. My counter to that argument is that, whether we want to believe it or not, the essence of communication is all about manipulating one’s environment, starting with infants trying to get fed or their diapers changed.

I think it’s more useful to make a distinction between the motivations behind the manipulation. For example, if your motivation is to spread love and create a relationship of mutual trust, then I’d argue that that is a “good” form of manipulation. If, on the other hand, your motivation is to hurt others, selfishly enrich yourself, or exploit others for nefarious reason, etc., then it is a “bad” form of manipulation.

Admittedly, I am oversimplifying a complicated ethical discussion that goes much deeper. I’m simply making the point that manipulation, while it has a negative connotation in our culture, is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing.

Communication is strategic whether it happens across cultures or within cultures. Understanding the values, assumptions and motivations of the other person creates the most favorable conditions for eliciting desired responses.

Below is my analysis of the communication breakdown mentioned above:


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2020

The Importance of Cultural Knowledge in Marketing


“Regardless of whether the wording was intentional or accidental, it’s a marketing boon for the fast food giant as people will no doubt be flooding social media with images of the lost-in-translation dessert as soon as it goes on sale.”

Here is a great example of how important it is to have knowledge of culture/popular culture (dare I say, even the seedy side?) when creating copy or product names. McDonald’s should know better—or maybe it did?

For those pure and innocent souls who don’t understand what the fuss is all about, I suggest you skip this post and move on with your beautiful, uncorrupted lives. 😉

Link to above article