Tag Archives: American culture

Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?


“Do you do marriage counseling?”

Her question came out of left field. I had just wrapped up a half-day seminar at a client’s on cultural differences between Japanese and Americans in the workplace, and now the only Japanese person in the class was asking me privately to offer counsel to her American husband. I laughed but she was dead serious. “My husband really needs this training.”

I never did pursue a marriage-counseling career, but our brief encounter got me wondering, Could I do it? At the risk of offending all the capable, professionally certified cross-cultural marriage counselors in the world, I think I could, certainly when Japanese and Americans were involved. Add my Japanese wife to the mix and our complementary skills would be ideally suited for such a calling.

Our credentials aren’t from academia, but we don’t play according to Hoyle anyway. We’re both college graduates, albeit with no formal training in psychology or counseling, no Doctorates, don’t even have a wretched Masters degree between us. But here’s what we’ve got: we know each other’s cultures intimately; we’ve been happily married for thirty years; we lived in each other’s countries, speak each other’s languages, ask good questions and listen. And if that’s not enough, we’re entertaining as hell. Did I mention we live in Hawaii? All we need are some clients now and we’re good to go.

Cross-Cultural Blues

My fantasy gig aside, it’s not like there isn’t a need to be filled here. Haven’t been able to track down any statistics on cross-cultural divorce rates, but a quick google search shows that cross-cultural marriage counselors actually do exist, evidence the need is there.

And it makes perfect sense. In our dynamic global world, more and more people are venturing abroad, leading to more people tying cross-cultural knots, leading to more cross-cultural knots needing to be untangled, sometimes even cut loose.

Let’s face it, marriage between people of the same culture is tough enough. Throw in a language barrier and a muddy cultural minefield littered with hidden value differences, and things get infinitely more complicated.

Sadly we know of too many broken marriages between Japanese and American couples. Just how many could’ve been saved with the right knowledge and guidance is anyone’s guess. Admittedly some couples should never have gotten married in the first place. But armed with the right knowledge, an emotionally mature, open-minded couple from different cultures has a good shot at creating a lasting partnership. But they’d have to go into it with open eyes and open hearts. It helps to have a sense of humor too.

What Couples Fight About

Amazing the silly stuff married couples fight about. An international couple gets all that and a bag of chips: she eats stinky fermented beans for breakfast, he wants an Egg McMuffin; he married for romantic love, she’s in it for a steady homemaking gig; he’s an old-school disciplinarian, her parents spoil the kids rotten; English is her second language, he speaks English only and struggles enough with that; he thinks she understands everything he says, she understands only half; he loves a feisty debate, she nods her head to keep the peace—especially when she disagrees; he likes to playfully tease, she thinks he’s being mean; his parents are loud and judgmental, hers zing you with a passive-aggressive smile.

And this just scratches the surface. Throw in the crazy idiosyncrasies we all have, the potential fallout from religious differences, not to mention different cultural attitudes toward sex, money and rock-n-roll, and you’ve got a murky brew of marital juices to stew in.

Check Your Identity at the Border

On a heavier note, some folks living in their spouse’s homeland report “loss of personal identity.” Defining exactly what this means is a can of worms we won’t open today. For the sake of this discussion, reflect on how you might answer these questions:

Do you see yourself as an independent entity or fraction of society? Are you ranked in a pecking order or is everyone equal?

How does your culture expect you to behave? Is open debate the norm? Or is feigned agreement encouraged in the name of harmony?

Are male and female roles clearly defined in your spouse’s country? Are females expected to show deference? If you’re a woman, how would you choose to deal with that reality?

And what about self worth? Is it measured by “self-actualization”? Accumulation of money? Status? Approval by the collective? Motherhood? Fatherhood? Career? Other?

And finally, how do you tell right from wrong? Is it always good to tell the truth? Are polite lies expected and encouraged in the name of social harmony? Does the “real you” fight for that seat on the train, or offer it to an elderly lady?

The list goes on but you get the gist. It shouldn’t surprise that lonely spouses living abroad—regardless of gender–might feel a loss of identity. It’s not a stretch to imagine a strong, independent female from a Western country being thrust into a male-dominated culture and feeling smothered. Or the other way–a traditional Asian woman going West.

I was in a different situation and felt anything but smothered. Japan was liberating for me. And yet, over the course of ten years I wrestled with my own kind of identity issues, specifically, the challenge of sorting out which part of me was American, which part had taken on Japanese-like qualities, and which part was just me. It took an eventual move back to the motherland to “rediscover” myself. What I learned was that I never “lost” anything, certainly not my identity. What happened was my identity had expanded with the infusion of Japanese culture into my life. No regrets. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Ignorance, the Silent Killer

The most dangerous scenario in the artful dance of communication happens when both partners assume they are communicating when in fact they are not. This scenario naturally begets confusion. One symptom is the tendency of one or both parties to assign bad intentions to the other party, even when everyone’s heart is in the right place. It happens more than you think. A great example is how Japanese, who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of English, might respond to a negatively stated question such as, “Don’t you love me?”

The Japanese partner, intending to say “Yes I love you,” might respond with “no,” meaning, “No, it’s not true that I do not love you.” Conversely, a Japanese partner, intending to say “No I do NOT love you,” might respond with “yes,” meaning, “Yes that’s correct, I don’t love you.” How about that for getting your signals crossed?

Now imagine all the drama such a misunderstanding could create, and multiply it by all the other unforeseen language and culture gaps that camouflage our good intentions.

Such misunderstandings quickly escalate, and before you know it spouses are sparring—over something they may actually agree on. False perceptions define their reality, and love gets lost in the confusion.

And this really underscores the power of cross-cultural knowledge in international marriages. Only by bringing hidden differences to the surface can they be acknowledged, reflected on, and worked out. Without awareness of these differences, problems not only don’t get solved, they proliferate and fester.

Can Love Conquer Culture?

It might get you through the honeymoon stage, I’ll grant you that. But over time misunderstandings and false perceptions can sour even the sweetest love. When the honeymoon’s over, you either roll up your sleeves and start working at your marriage, or get pulled into a downward spiral fueled by mutual ignorance. We all know where that ends up.

To our credit and good fortune, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking in the courting stage. It helps that neither of us is shy, that we were willing to put in the time and effort to communicate, and that I had already lived in my wife’s country for seven years and had a good grasp of her language and culture. With that backdrop, here’s what was rolling around in my head before I popped the question.

What does “marriage” really mean in Japan versus my culture? Is love part of the deal? What roles would a married international couple assume? Would she be willing to marry me as an equal partner? Or would I have to be subservient!?

What are the positives of our respective cultures? What’s important to her? What’s important to me? Could she learn to love Egg McMuffins? Could I learn to eat smelly fermented beans for breakfast?

Where would we live? Do we both want kids? How many? How would we raise them? Would they speak one language or both? Would we indulge them or use tough-love? And what if we fail and they turn out like me?

What do we expect of ourselves and each other? What are the boundaries of trust? How to show respect? How to show affection? How to disagree? How to resolve disputes? Would I have to sleep on the couch sometimes? If so, will the couch be comfortable?

It all looks so neat and tidy when it’s written down like that. The reality is our conversations were unstructured, messy, a lot messier when we were drinking wine. But we made the time to talk, to share with each other how we had been raised, nurtured, disciplined, how our parents related to each other, and how it turned us into the confused young adults that we were…okay, that I was.

But even with thirty years of marital bliss under my belt, can’t help but think that some guidance and structured conversations would’ve prevented a couple wheels from being reinvented. If I could go back in time and counsel my young bachelor self, here’s what I’d say to me:

When you tease her she thinks you’re being mean. She’ll never get your American-guy sarcastic sense of humor so back off on the teasing.

Don’t let her do the dishes, she hates it and sucks at it. (I recently fired my wife from the dish-washing duties and reassigned them to yours truly. Had I known then how happy this would make her, I’d have done it thirty years ago.)

Read “The Anatomy of Peace” by Arbinger Group!” (The book wasn’t published until 2006 so I’d have to smuggle it into the time machine. But had I read it thirty years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have been a better husband and father.)

And if my Japanese wife could go back in time and counsel her young single self on marrying a foreign barbarian, what advice would she give?

Sign up for our Intercultural Marriage Retreat in Hawaii and we’ll talk about it. 😉

For more on cross-cultural marriages check out Samurai Wife: The Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013


When Cultures Collide: High-Context versus Low-Context

Edward T. Hall coined the terms “high-context” and “low-context” cultures in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. Hall defines “context” as “the information that surrounds an event and is inextricably bound up with the meaning of that event.”

Any close-knit group with similar values, experiences, and expectations would be a high context culture. Its members don’t need as many words and explicit explanations as a low-context culture, as meanings are inferred through the strength of the culture. A couple married for a long-time would tend to be relatively high-context in the husband and wife’s communication patterns. Silences and other non-verbal cues, for example, would have more meaning to such a couple than to an outsider.

Cultures around the world are classified as high-context or low-context but it’s misleading. It’s true that countries with history and tradition tend to be high context, Japan being a great example. But high-context-low-context classification is not an absolute yes-or-no kind of deal; the mix of all the elements that go into events and context is different proportionally for any given cultural group. Hence, context is a matter of degrees on a theoretical scale, with each country falling on a different point between high-context and low-context extremes.

As a starting point, it’s useful to compare extremes. Looking at the “high-context-low-context” model, on one end of the spectrum are the high-context Japanese; on the other end the low-context Germans.

Also, present on the Japan side of the scale are the high-context Arabs and Mediterranean folks. The Germans are in the same general neighborhood as Americans and Northern Europeans.

Hall says that high context cultures favor and rely on well-developed, informal information networks, the perfect description of Japanese communication patterns in the workplace: messy, inefficient, informal, but very effective within the context of their culture.

No surprise that low-context Americans are always looking for context because our fragmented culture doesn’t provide it for us. We need detailed background information so we understand the big picture and where we fit in. We Americans don’t like to commit to anything until we know our niche within the grand scheme of things.

A visual representation of America’s cultural fragmentation is how we lay out our workplace versus the Japanese. U.S. business favors walls and cubicles for “privacy,” a euphemism for isolation. The elites in a U.S. company get their own office and tend to consult with only a limited, select group of people. (Steve Jobs was famous for this.) These advisors are the communication pinch points that filter and control the flow of information to the guy at the top.

Even middle managers in America tend to sequester themselves in high-walled cubicles and exchange information in a more linear way than Japanese counterparts.

Japan, in contrast, uses the open-office concept, where all desks are arranged in an open space with no walls, and traditionally, no cubicles. Positions are determined by rank, a legacy of Confucianism’s enduring hierarchy (a legacy that also happens to provide lots of context).

Exceptions exist to the open office layout within Japanese companies, depending on the industry, company culture, etc. For example, I’ve seen Japanese-owned subsidiaries in the U.S. compromise with their American workforce by providing low-walled cubicles but it’s still an open office concept. Even in this environment, Japanese CEO’s generally sit among the troops and talk to whoever happens their way, with mini-conferences and gatherings happening frequently–sometimes to a fault. Japanese executives have diverse sources of information, and they know whom to seek out to get the information they need.

Filtered through my American values, the downside of the Japanese style open-office concept is that it’s hard to focus on your work for any sustained period of time. I prefer to work in a linear mode: start with A then move to B then C and so on.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the Japanese work: they juggle A, B, and C, and consult with everyone and their brother before making even the most insignificant decisions.

As inefficient as this approach can be in running a business, the sheer power of human bonds in a Japanese organization is extremely effective in getting things done. But as you might expect, it’s really tough for low-context, efficiency-loving Americans to get in the Japanese loop.

In a previous life, before spreadsheets were ubiquitous, I used to make monthly press schedules for a Japanese metal stamping and assembly operation start-up using just my feeble brain and a calculator. As my scheduling deadline approached each month, I wanted to find a place to hide so I could concentrate on the task at hand, something very difficult to do in an open office. Making a press schedule required lots of concentration and a myriad of variables to juggle in my head. But in an exposed Japanese office I was vulnerable to distraction. Every couple minutes someone would stop by to ask a question, issue a request, or too often, give me more work. Tim-san, please interpret the production meeting right now!

With all these interruptions it was impossible to get my feeble brain into the schedule deeply enough to effectively keep all those variables in the air, so to speak. So  I’d always be forced to take my work home with me.

While I see the value of the open office concept from a communication perspective, it tends to encourage a work style that’s tough for linear, efficiency-loving Americans to embrace, certainly in my case.

No wonder the Japanese have to stay at work for 14 hours! Their high-context modus operandi, as effective as it can be, is too inefficient to get enough done in 8 hours, because in Japan, efficiency must compete with harmony, collectivism, and a non-linear polychronic perception of time (what I call “the eternal now”). This is a battle that efficiency will never win in Japan.

In the next post, we’ll focus on the communication process itself, more specifically, which “direction” information is expected to flow in different cultures.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

When Positive Reinforcement Clashes with Japanese Negativity

Positive Reinforcement: “The giving of encouragement to a particular behavior with the intended result that it is more likely to be repeated.”

I recently wrote a piece on American Culture and Positive Reinforcement. I received some thought-provoking responses. Rather than adding a long comment to the original post, I decided to continue the conversation here.

Does Positive Reinforcement (Necessarily) Land Upon Cultural Lines?

Let’s start with Darren’s comment that he “takes issue with the implied premise that ‘positive reinforcement’ lands upon cultural lines.”

I agree that positive reinforcement doesn’t necessarily land along Japanese/American cultural lines. It could just as easily be generational changes in values and behavior, or as Darren points out, differences in subcultures within any given country.

It’s easy to get tangled up in semantics. Darren understands this, but for those who don’t, I’d like to point out that the notion of “cultural differences” doesn’t only refer to cultural gaps between nations. Cultural differences exist between my father’s generation and mine. They exist within the borders of my country, between North and South and East and West– not to mention the cultural differences between Irish Americans and German Americans and African Americans and Native Americans, etc. Japan also has issues of diversity (Kanto versus Kansai, etc.), but obviously not as dramatic as the US.

The reality is that cultural tendencies do exist–and clash–in mixed Japanese/American workplaces, especially when you focus on positive versus negative approaches to training and management.

Mixed-culture workplaces have a way of highlighting behavior patterns that you might not otherwise notice. I can’t remember ever working with a Japanese transplant in the U.S. that didn’t experience friction due to Japanese (perceived) “negativity” and the Japanese boss’s reluctance to pat subordinates on the back. This distinct pattern provides ample proof that a huge cultural gap does indeed exist, certainly within the context of the workplace.

Why Are Japanese So Negative?

In highlighting the gaps, it’s instructive to not only ask why Americans are so enamored with positive reinforcement, but also consider why Japanese take such a negative approach to developing employees.

I submit that Japanese “negativity” is a product of the Confucian hierarchy (bushido version) and Japan’s traditional epistemological framework best described as “radical-empiricism-meets-bushido”, the idea that the only way to learn is through experience, repetition and getting beat up (usually in the figurative sense). A representative model of the traditional Japanese teaching approach is the Japanese karate instructor: he only critiques what’s wrong, never offers praise about what’s right.

In this framework it’s impossible to ignore the sensei-deshi (teacher-pupil) hierarchy and its implications within the framework of Japan’s “totei seido” (apprenticeship) system. In a Japanese-style apprenticeship program the student is expected to suffer in order to improve, to “steal” the boss’s knowledge and techniques rather than wait to be taught. (Now there’s an operative word if I ever heard one: “steal”. Operative because the Japanese boss doesn’t give explicit feedback to subordinates: his loyal deshi gotta come dig for the knowledge–while the Japanese boss beats them up for every little mistake they make.)

There’s a great quote about totei seido in Robert Whiting’s book, The Meaning of Ichiro: the new Wave from Japan and the Transformation of our National Pastime:

“Orix’s pint-sized manager Shozo Doi believed in what was known as the totei seido (apprenticeship system), long evident in many areas of Japanese society from small factories to large corporations and government offices. To Doi, totei seido meant baseball rookies should endure a certain amount of pain and suffering and should not be allowed to experience too much success too early…Thus, after Ichiro, in his first season as a professional, had led the Japanese minor leagues in batting with a .366 average in 58 games and compiled a .253 average in 40 games with the parent team, Doi returned him to the farm club early the following year.”

Doi explained his rationale as such:

“Ichiro had come too fast too far. He was progressing without any problems. A player has to know hardship if he’s going to reach his full potential.”

No surprise that the poor deshi in Japan make lots of mistakes while struggling to emulate the sensei. Every time a mistake is made the boss lets the deshi know it, sometimes in a nice way, more often in a gruff, harsh way (depending, of course, on whether the boss is a “wizened Zen Master” or “Crazy Samurai” type personality).

Now I’m wondering if apprenticeship-style systems around the world might share this negative approach. My dad was a pipefitter who learned his trade within the apprenticeship system. Like the Japanese, when he got in his teaching mode he favored the “negative reinforcement” approach (my term). Not always. But he was hard on us–not to be mean but to push us to be better, not unlike former Japanese bosses. (Not implying here that it worked in my case, just that the negativity was driven by good intentions. ;-))

In regard to my father’s “Japanese-style” approach, I believe it’s a generational issue. But I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with apprenticeship culture (particularly in the trades). If anyone has an opinion on this please enlighten me.

The discussion continues in my next post…

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

Enough to be Dangerous

Years ago I landed a gig as a sales manager in an injection molding plant. At the time I had no experience in sales but was fluent in Japanese, and that was good enough for my American employer. Ha, little did they know.

Early on my boss gave me some advice that surprised me. He explained that there were three kinds of customers in the world:

1) Those very knowledgeable about our product

2) Those who know nothing about our product

3) Those who know enough to be dangerous

He said the customers in the first two categories should be my focus, but that I must avoid like the plague the “enough-to-be-dangerous” crowd. These customers, he assured me, “will second-guess you, disregard your advice then blame you when things go wrong.”

I remember being mystified that a business model would advocate rejecting any kind of viable work. Now twenty years later in a different industry with a totally different product, I find myself still following this advice.

Our company has a soft spot for the “very knowledgeable” client types because there’s nothing more satisfying and sustainable than working with elite organizations. On the flipside we’re happy to help any quality organization new to the Japanese market. All we ask for is an open mind and the will to improve.

The Myth About Linguistic Competence

An American once said to me with a straight face, that if she could just speak Japanese she’d be able to manage Japanese tour groups. I could only sigh and shake my head. A long time ago I thought this way too. And it got me in trouble.

The novice dealing with Japan doesn’t know that things are never what they appear to be. Without knowing the “reality” below the surface, it would be a monumental challenge for the most linguistically competent Japanese speaker just to get the group on the bus.

In concrete terms, to successfully “coordinate” in Japan you better know how to play the game behind the scenes, be a mind reader, and anticipate needs and fulfill them before anyone makes a fuss. You better stay on high alert for opportunities to assist people struggling, gently mine for information in casual conversations to identify potential conflict, and seek out opportunities to facilitate harmony. You better know how to quietly negotiate compromises. And you better be savvy enough not to believe the polite lies they tell you.

Nope, linguistic competence doesn’t assure good communication with the Japanese, or with any other culture for that matter.

If I could somehow wave a magic wand and make an American coordinator instantly fluent in Japanese, trouble would surely follow. For a couple reasons: first, the Japanese word for “coordinate” has no equivalent in English. The Japanese word is chosei and it literally means, “adjust”. The concept of chosei carries implications of harmony expressed through relationship building and subtle, behind-the-scenes negotiating so no one loses face.

This is a far cry from how Americans “coordinate”.

But here’s the real problem with relying on linguistic competence alone: just because you have the linguistic skill to say something in a foreign language doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to actually say it. What an American might express in a given situation is not necessarily what a Japanese would say. A comment that would make an American smile could easily offend a Japanese guest. Well-intended messages too often get swallowed up in the cross-cultural abyss, creating confusion and doubt rather than the desired result of building trust. This happens more than anyone realizes and it’s counterproductive.

Any cross-cultural coordinator worth her salt understands that values trump language every time.

Value Gaps

I mentioned above the hidden gaps in a simple word like “coordinate”. Just imagine if you dissect concepts like “motivate”, “educate” and “manage”. As each word passes through different sets of cultural filters in cross-cultural interactions, the gaps quietly add up.

Value gaps are even more significant. Let’s use a simple example. We’ll start with the premise that Japanese and American cultures both value “beauty”. Yet even though we share this universal value, Americans do not put the same emphasis on beauty as the Japanese do. Indeed our standards of beauty are different. Japanese want everything to be beautiful: decorative envelopes for cash payments; exquisite food presentation; elegantly wrapped gifts; visually pleasing business reports; and in extreme instances, even an aesthetically beautiful death. Americans just aren’t that into beauty.

What do aesthetics have to do with business? Go visit Big Island Candies and take note: BIC totally “gets” the Japanese value on aesthetics, and have put this knowledge to work in designing a product that Japanese customers love. (Of course it’s more than just aesthetics; BIC is the most sophisticated company I’ve seen in all the islands in terms of engaging and satisfying the Japanese market.)

Don’t misconstrue my point: a talented interpreter can be a godsend under the right conditions. But without cultural knowledge and a value-based strategy to bridge the gaps, the linguistic piece is meaningless. That’s when you send the interpreter home and save a few bucks.

But here’s the clincher: a great interpreter does not necessarily make a great coordinator. I know excellent interpreters who hate the thought of coordinating and would be really bad at it. Ask any Japanese interpreter: they’ll be the first to tell you that coordinating a Japanese group entails much more than swapping words. It’s not about language!

What Are Japanese Guests Thinking?

The folks at Big Island Candies know exactly what their Japanese guests want. Ditto for Sig Zane. (Another aesthetically sophisticated company doing well in this market.) But these are exceptional businesses.

Before moving to Hawaii I expected that local businesses would be much more sophisticated in dealing with the Japanese market. After all, I reasoned, they have a large population of Japanese Americans, and have been serving the market for decades, full blast since the mid 1980s. And yet most don’t seem to know what their Japanese visitors want. (I was disappointed to learn that Hawaii has very limited knowledge of this market but it’s translated into work so it’s all good.)

The biggest obstacle in getting feedback from Japanese customers is their tendency to clam up when service falls short of expectations. They’d much rather stew in their own juice, tell all their friends and family–everyone except the business that wronged them. Then they protest with their wallets by never returning. This is all invisible to the offending business, of course. And the delusional proprietor carries on believing everything is hunky-dory so there’s no motivation to improve. Ignorance is indeed bliss.

Dangerous Vendors

The only thing worse than a customer that knows enough to be dangerous is a vendor with the same problem. When dealing with this kind of vendor we exercise one of two options: develop the vendor until they are no longer dangerous, or, in the event the vendor doesn’t want to improve, “set them free”. This is our last resort, an option we exercise only when the educational approach is rejected, or when it doesn’t yield the desired result.

We currently have a cadre of quality vendors serving our Japanese client base. It took several years to weed out the riffraff –and it’s absolutely an ongoing process–but we’ve stabilized. “Positive feedback” comes in the form of repeat business.

Am I Nuts?

Just enough to be proud of it.

Drilling down to root cause, organizations that “know-enough-to-be-dangerous” lack humility. Humility is important to our business because it’s a useful indicator of two other key values: integrity and quality.

We won’t do business with organizations that lack integrity. Nor will we do business with organizations not committed to improving.

Quality service is impossible without quality communication. Quality communication is built on a foundation of common values, education, strategy and effective execution. Interpretation happens within the parameters of a broader communication context. If you believe an interpreter can transform you into an effective cross-cultural coordinator then good luck and sayonara: you know enough to be dangerous!

It may seem like bad business karma–perhaps even a bit snooty–to decline work from companies that fail to meet our criteria. Truth is we’re too busy to worry about it. Our time is better spent developing a quality client base, and nurturing suppliers humble enough to keep improving.

Would we turn down business in a recession? We feel blessed to have this option, but the answer is absolutely if the chemistry isn’t right. But I submit that because we spent the last decade developing top-shelf clients and vendors, we have the luxury of making these choices today.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009