Tag Archives: cross-cultural business

Americans More Rank Conscious Than the Japanese?

A friend just shared with me an interesting article, The Extra Legroom Society. It’s about America’s obsession with status, and it’s spot on.

This is where I confess that I’m complicit as hell. After all, I’m yet to turn down a First-Class upgrade offer from my airline, and don’t plan to in the future. (Does that make me a bad person?) But as an observer of my own culture from way back when, America’s obsession with status in the workplace has been obvious to me since returning to the U.S. some 27 years ago.

This was back in my former life as a transplant factory rat. During a late-night drinking session, a Japanese colleague confessed to me that before he came to the U.S., he read that America was an egalitarian society. But after he got here and worked with Americans for a couple months, he concluded that “Americans are more obsessed with rank and status than we Japanese, and we’re pretty bad.” He then proceeded to point out all the rank/status symbols that permeate corporate America: fancy suits, colorful neckties, private jets, the corner office, big salaries, reserved executive parking spots, executive cafeterias, not to mention reluctance by white collar types to get their hands dirty.

It’s hard to deny that we Americans were obsessed with status 27 years ago. The bad news is it’s gotten much worse.

Talk about a counter-intuitive value contradiction! Aren’t Japanese managers supposed to be hard-core Bushido authoritarians? And American counterparts casual and sensitive? If you believe in stereotypes, then yes.

I believe in reality so here’s my take: Americans pretend to be egalitarian because it’s a cultural ideal that we cherish, at least in the abstract. But we’re really into status too, perhaps driven by the ideal that America should be (at least on paper) a meritocracy where any person with the drive and talent can succeed? 

To the Japanese credit, at least they’re honest about their rank-consciousness. They don’t pretend there isn’t a pecking order. The Confucian hierarchy is woven into the fabric of their collective society, out in the open where they can deal with it, even choose to downplay it. Speaking from my experience in Japanese manufacturing, most J-managers took great pains to downplay rank, easy to do when everyone knows their place in the pecking order. In concrete terms, Japanese managers routinely work on the factory floor, wear the same uniforms as production associates, share the same cafeteria, fight for the same parking spaces, and get their hands dirty everyday.

In contrast, too many Americans are in denial about their love of status and rank. We deal with it like anyone else deals with a value contradiction: through cognitive dissonance–like being on a first-name basis with the boss while knowing in your heart of hearts you’re not equal, or accepting that First Class upgrade and the added perk of boarding the plane before those poor souls condemned to coach.

As the attached article states, our society continues to ratchet up the status game. Can’t help but wonder if a cultural backlash is coming.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013


Japan Insight Goes Social

JIhead2a'09Aloha! Brief post today to announce that, after much hemming and hawing and brawling inside my own head, the pro-social-media forces of evil won, compelling me to create my company’s new Japan Insight facebook page. Then I went really crazy and resurrected my twitter account, even uploaded my pretty logo (above).

Since we’re on the subject–Japan Insight also has a youtube channel.

As you can see it’s too late to turn back now–so no choice but to enjoy the ride. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

If you’re kind enough to click your way over to the links posted, and like what you see, we’d appreciate if you’d honor us with a “like” and keep coming back.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

Japanese Customer Service Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry


The only thing we deliver or are trying to deliver to our guests is satisfaction . . . we have nothing else…In our business, no excuse is accepted when something goes wrong…”

Koichi Satoh
President and General Manager, Hotel Okura

One of the common complaints I hear from Japanese folks about American customer service is that when Americans break a promise, rather than apologizing they make excuses. This is more a gap in cultural expectations than an indictment of American manners. And it begs some questions:

Why are Americans so uncomfortable apologizing?

Why is it that when confronted with criticism, many Americans tend to get defensive?

And why would the Japanese be any different?

American behavior is driven to a large degree by how Americans define the concept of responsibility within the context of a society that values individualism. So back to the first two questions: why are Americans uncomfortable apologizing and why so defensive? The answer is that the mere act of apologizing in America is often interpreted as an admission of personal (read “individual”) guilt. After all, someone’s got to accept responsibility. No surprise that no one wants to step forward and take the rap as it can wreak havoc on one’s reputation or career. For this reason, when Americans give “reasons” for making a mistake they are, more often than not, on the defensive–victims of circumstance outside of their control. No one told me about the schedule change! And so on.

In contrast, the Japanese tend to dilute responsibility by divvying it up amongst team members. And since apologizing is less an admission of guilt than an expression of regret that someone was inconvenienced, it makes it a lot easier for Japanese to apologize than Americans. So everyone apologizes and it’s all good!

The Japanese put a lot of importance on honoring social commitments. The Confucian code of morality dictates that if a promise is made, then the honorable man must do his utmost to fulfill it at all costs. Not to do so would be a terrible loss of face. This helps explain why the Japanese have less tolerance for accepting “reasons” given after a promise has gone unfulfilled, especially if the broken promise involves the almighty customer. Most explanations deemed reasonable by American standards would be called “excuses” by most Japanese. And while this doesn’t jibe well with the American concept of “fairness”, it’s how the Japanese see the world through their Confucian-colored glasses. Breaking a promise in Japanese society requires some pretty dire circumstances before you can expect any sympathy or understanding.

So if a mistake is made with your Japanese customer (whether it was your fault or not), the best thing to do is bow and say Moshi wake gozaimasen, literally, “There is no excuse.” How interesting that the most polite way of apologizing in Japanese in essence forbids the offender to even consider making an excuse.

A Japanese executive at a large tier-one automotive company told me years ago that all his suppliers made mistakes, but the good ones responded quickly to rectify their problems. The message here is, if you goof up with a Japanese customer don’t hesitate to apologize. Then focus on rectifying the problem immediately. Sincerity carries a lot of weight with the Japanese, so offering a small gift, discount or concession goes a long way in making things right. In the end the Japanese customer will judge you on both your effort and end results. Fulfilling your promise to “take care of the problem immediately” is not only your ticket to redemption; it’s an opportunity to grow even closer to your customer.

For more on this topic, check out American Customer Service Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.

For more on Japanese-style customer service, check out this short clip of me delivering a customer-service seminar at Halekulani.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009