Tag Archives: cross-cultural communication

A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo Jumbo

That’s how you know you’re within a walled city, the jargon. They’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the world and are speaking a jargon only they can really understand.” –Robert Pirsig

The first anthropology book that didn’t put me to sleep was Takie Sugiyama Lebra’s Japanese Patterns of Behavior. At the time I had been in Japan over four years and had a reasonable grasp of spoken Japanese. But I was still confused about what I perceived as contradictory behavior by my Japanese hosts. To wit:

How could they be so polite in social interactions then turn into maniacs on the train? Why so serious and reserved at work then hammered and goofy at the karaoke bar? How could they be modern and scientific, and yet so beholden to ancient superstitions and rituals? What would make them warm and caring towards some people, but cold and distant toward others? And why so vague in their routine communication style but no qualms about bluntly pointing out you’ve gained a few pounds?

To Dr. Lebra’s credit, her book singlehandedly took four years of accumulated confusion and sorted most of it out in a single reading. Lightbulbs clicked on with every turn of the page, and the antics of my Japanese hosts suddenly started making sense. It was a breakthrough book for sure, and I’m thankful to Dr. Lebra for the burst of enlightenment.

But man did she make me wade through some dry, academic mumbo jumbo to get to the Promised Land. Had I not been in Japan at the time—had I not had a vested interest in figuring out my Japanese hosts’ behavior—it’s doubtful I’d have made it past the first page. But don’t believe me, read this snippet and judge for yourself:

Social interaction or relationships can best be analyzed by singling out the central actor then identifying his social object. I shall call the central actor “Ego” and his social object “Alter,” both terms being capitalized to signify their social emphasis as distinct from their psychological implications… Alter, who is the main object of preoccupation for the Japanese Ego, may be in regular contact with Ego or may be inaccessible except on special occasion and thus only recalled from memory. Alter may be a single person or a group; Alter and Ego may be of equal standing or hierarchically graded; their relationship may be lifelong or only transient, a desirable one Ego wants to maintain or an undesirable one from which Ego wishes to extricate himself. We can think of many other variations, yet they are all identical with respect to social preoccupation.” (Takie Sugiyama Lebra)

My brain hurts reading this even thirty years later. There must be a simpler way to convey the same message in plain English—or plain any language—preferably with a story or anecdote to breathe some life into it.

As cryptic as Lebra’s style is, at least her subject matter had enough juice to keep me going til the end. But as a friend once quipped after reading it, “You sometimes wonder if she’s talking about people or specimens.”

But this is not about Dr. Lebra—it’s about the mumbo jumbo in all the literature of cultural anthropology. Check out this gem from the first anthropology book that actually did put me to sleep, “Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction”:

In studies of classification, both in developmental and cross-cultural psychology, a good deal of interest has centered on two aspects of the subject’s performance: (1) the particular attribute the subject uses as the criterion of similarity (this is comparable to interest in the stimulus dimension in perceptual preference studies), and (2) whether or not he uses a single attribute consistently as the basis for groupings. Findings with respect to these questions have provided much of the empirical foundation for theories of cognitive development that stress progression from a kind of thinking that is concrete and context-bound to thinking that is abstract and rule-governed.”

I get the point but need a drink now! Can’t imagine anyone outside the academic walls of cultural anthropology exercising their freewill to read this. And if the average Joes in our global world don’t get this knowledge—if it’s only intended for the eyes and ears of other mumbo-jumbo-speaking academics—then really, what good is it?

Indeed anthropology has worked hard to shroud itself in complexity, aided by the use of a cryptic language developed and spoken only by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and folks who just want to sound smart. And it begs the question, why would that be?

Why All the Anthropo-Mumbo-Jumbo?

I blame Franz Boas, the immortalized “father of American anthropology,” for trying to make cultural anthropology into a Victorian science, when it was, is, and always will be, the subjective study of humans by humans.

Boas’ bias toward science makes perfect sense in light of his background. A product of the 19th century, he was trained in mathematics and received his doctorate in physics in Germany at a time when scientists were flirting with rock star status. (Einstein the most famous of them all.) Boas would go on to teach at Columbia University, and in 1899 establish the very first Anthropology Ph.D. Program in the U.S.

One of Boas’ many claims to fame was that he pioneered a method of anthropological investigation modeled after the hard sciences. Philosopher Robert Pirsig explains the problem with casting anthropology as a science:

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages. The result has been theoretical chaos.”

Science or no science, the reality is that anthropology aspired—and still aspiresto be a science, which implies there was doubt from the beginning about its scientific legitimacy. After all, physics and biology don’t aspire to be a science, everyone knows they just are. But poor, insecure anthropology, craving the legitimacy of science from its modern inception, created a language of scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo that gave rise to the dry, lifeless, cryptic literature anthropology students are forced to read today. And we all suffer for it.

My issues with the mumbo jumbo aside, Boas deserves his props for the enduring contribution he made to cultural anthropology in very positive ways. His big claim to fame was successfully applying scientific methods to debunking “scientific racism,” the application of what was purportedly science, to classifying people according to race, then ranking them up accordingly. Boas rejected outright the idea of biological predispositions and countered with the theory that social learning was the primary driver of differences amongst the various cultures of the world. His theory stuck, and it’s a cornerstone of modern anthropology today.

We can also thank Boas for groundbreaking research that led to the anthropological principle of “cultural relativism,” the belief that civilization is, in Boas’ own words, “not something absolute, but…relative, and…our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” This implies that cultures cannot be ranked objectively, as each human observer perceives the world through the lens of his or her respective culture and makes subjective judgments accordingly (interestingly a claim in itself that contradicts the notion of anthropology as a science).

So acknowledging that there’s lots to love about Boas and his impact on anthropology, just imagine how much cooler it’d be without the jargon.

In fairness to Boas he had plenty of accomplices in creating and advancing the language of anthropology, namely, his student minions Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Alfred Kroeber. Collectively they took their mentor’s staunch commitment to objectivity, science and all its accompanying scientific jargon, and raised it to new heights of inscrutability.

So we’ve identified our key culprits, the creators of the jargon-filled gobblygook language of anthropology that endures today. At its core is a yearning by an insecure field of study for the same legitimacy commanded by the traditional sciences. Those of us inside the walls of anthropology who continue using the language of mumbo-mumbo, are complicit in scaring off the very people who could use the knowledge the most.

Earning Our Keep

If I were king I’d ban all mumbo jumbo, gobblygook and balderdash from anthropology, and require all my subjects to use simple, clear language in all their communications.

Unfortunately the odds of me being king of anything are about the same as the average Joe reading Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Not gonna happen. The writing style is just too intimidating.

It’s tough enough connecting cultures for a living. Folks in the cross-cultural field have the added chore of connecting the cryptic language of insecure academics with clients who need to communicate with living, breathing human beings. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it. And this is where we earn our keep: spinning mumbo-jumbo into productive human connections.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013


It’s Not What’s Said, It’s What’s Heard

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

While working with a client on a project some years back, I shared Edward T. Hall’s quote above with an executive leading the project. He responded with a pithy quote of his own that really nailed the point: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Beautiful. So I put it in the title. Lots of meaning packed into those words.

What is “Communication”?

Contrary to popular myth communication doesn’t equal language; language is but one tool of communication. (For more on this see The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language.)

And yet most of us get lulled into believing that if we just string together the right words then communication will naturally follow.

The mind-flip invited by both quotes above is that the focus should be on the listener, not the speaker. 

And the underlying implication is that communication is strategic. It’s all about getting the other person to hear the desired intent behind the message and respond in a certain way.

Anyone who’s ever worked in sales knows this intuitively. When a salesperson walks into a sales presentation her desired response is to get the audience to buy whatever she’s selling. She could have the slickest, flashiest presentation in the world, rattle off a litany of “right” messages, but if she doesn’t get a purchase order out of the deal then she didn’t get her desired response, a failure to communicate in the most tangible sense.

Peddling Planes to China

But let’s shift our focus now in a positive direction. Specifically, let’s examine an actual case study where a savvy U.S. company developed an effective initiative using strategic knowledge about local culture to release a desired response.

In 1997 China Southern applied for approval to the U.S. Department of Transportation to launch a new route from Guangzhou to Los Angeles. The U.S. government, wary of China’s safety record, used the application as an excuse to dig under the fingernails of Chinese airline regulators to make sure they had their ducks in a row prior to issuing approval.

Of course, they didn’t.

No surprise China Southern threw a hissy fit, threatening to cancel the airplane orders it placed with Boeing. Imagine that.

Boeing was obviously in a pickle. If the U.S. government didn’t approve for the new routes, then they could kiss those China-Southern airplane orders goodbye.

Of course Boeing had no direct connection to the safety woes of the Chinese airlines. But it really wanted to sell those airplanes. So Boeing did what any long-term thinking business would do: it shouldered the burden of helping China raise its regulatory practices and improve airline safety procedures. Just how Boeing approached the challenge echoes the sentiments expressed above: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

James Fallows explains:

…the U.S. training team was hyper-sensitive about two aspects of this training exercise for their Chinese colleagues. One was to present all their recommendations in terms of meeting international standards for air safety and airline procedures, rather than seeming to say, This is how we do it in the U.S. of A. Presenting the challenge this way made it far more palatable to the Chinese side.” (China Airborne)

In other words, the “desired response” sought by Boeing was for the Chinese to be cooperative. The strategy was to NOT come across as “arrogant Americans,” an approach that would’ve pushed Chinese clients into a defensive stance and make them anything but cooperative. 

According to Fallows, Boeing was so successful in getting their desired response that, “Through the next decade, Chinese commercial aviation, while expanding faster than any other country’s, was statistically among the world’s very safest.” (For more on this topic check out China Airborne by James Fallows.)

The moral of the story is that communication is about selling a message, a point of view, an opinion, a truth, sometimes even a lie. The barometer of success is simple: Are your listeners “buying” your message?

Sometimes we overcomplicate things in the cross-cultural field with our cryptic “academic-speak” and abstract communication models. Sometimes you wonder if we’re talking about people or specimens! So here’s my very simple desired response today: if we all would just put a little more focus on what others might be hearing, rather than on what we think we want to say, pretty sure we’d all get along a little better.

But only if you’re hearing what I’m saying.

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

One Minute Insight: The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language

The 2nd installment of “One Minute Insights.” Feedback is welcome.

Go ahead and click it, it’ll only take a minute!

The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service


Back in my Japan university days I eked out a living teaching English conversation part time. Made just enough money to support a weekend gallivanting habit. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me every Thursday, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo to get to my gig in the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Dr. Thursday wanted lessons at his home where we conspired every week to fake our way through an English lesson, sessions in which I mostly listened to his troubles and regrets, secrets he would never have dared tell his family and friends.

Our therapy sessions were especially interesting on the rare occasion the doc would crack open a couple cold Sapporo drafts. Drinking beer was not part of my curriculum, but doc was the customer after all. So when he picked up the beer I’d hold out my glass for him to pour, reciprocate, then we’d toast our fake English class. No one was more qualified to do this job than me.

Being a foreigner was a big part of my qualifications. Thoroughly insulated from the doctor’s inner group, I was one of the safest sounding boards in all of Japan. Indeed I was the only game in town where he could confess his sins with no social repercussions. (Think “Father Timothy” without the penance and Catholic guilt.) So our English class was, in essencethe doctor’s weekly refuge from the oppressive social pressure cooker he inhabited most of his waking hours. Dr. Thursday paid me fair market price to lend a sympathetic ear. By default, I became an unlicensed therapist at English-teacher prices.

Looking back at these weekly sessions—and all my other private students back then—they provided a precious glimpse into the soul of modern Japan. In this case, my subject was an intelligent, successful Japanese doctor who, on paper, should have been the happiest man on earth. In fact he had spent his whole life making others happy: happy parents, happy in-laws, happy teachers and happy patients. Even his wife looked happy, but you never knew for sure.

And yet the good doctor didn’t strike me at all as being happy himself. So my mission as his fake English teacher was to keep the session as happy and engaging as possible, while sneaking in some English chops along the way. Turns out my approach was literally “just what the doctor ordered,” as the gig had legs, lasting through college and well beyond. I eventually handed the doctor off to a capable friend (a real English teacher) when I got a regular job and moved back to the States. Never thought I’d say this, but I miss those Thursday evening sessions with doc.

Kikubari Blues

This particular gig had a predictable routine. From the moment I’d knock on the doctor’s front door the same scenario would unfold, my weekly deja-vu moment: the doctor’s wife would answer the door, greet me with a bow, and escort me to the coffee table in their living room where I’d sit on their comfy Western-style sofa and wait for the busy doctor to call me to his office upstairs. When he was ready.

In the meantime, the wife would bring me a cup of instant coffee with lots of cream and sugar in it. I would thank her, drink just enough to show my appreciation, then leave the rest untouched.

By unilaterally deciding that I, the foreigner from America, wanted to drink sweet, creamy instant coffee, doc’s wife was practicing what Japanese call “kikubari,” the fine art of anticipation. But because her knowledge of my culture was limited, she was clueless about what I really wanted: choice. I can only guess that she assumed foreigners like sugary, creamy, instant coffee—so that’s what I got.

In fairness the doctor’s wife had part of it right. I do love coffee. In the morning. Freshly brewed. With a little cream. No sweetener.

But if she had thought to give me a choice, I’d have done the obligatory refusal before humbly accepting a cup of green tea, one of my favorite drinks in the world. And while I truly appreciated the intent behind the wife’s thoughtful gesture, the downside was that I ended up drinking way too many half cups of creamy sugary coffee.

No complaints because it was a great gig. But with the Japan Olympics right around the corner, it’s worthwhile pondering the cultural ramifications of overdoing the kikubari thing, especially when an unsuspecting, choice-loving foreigner is on the receiving end.

The Dark Side of Kikubari

What happens when kikubari is unleashed outside Japan’s cultural borders?

It’s useful to compare two cultural extremes. Picture in your head a “bell curve of anticipation.” On the far right end of the curve is Japan, the land of unbridled kikubari, where hosts are expected to anticipate all their guests whims and desires, sometimes to a fault.

On the other end of the curve is American culture, where personal choice is highly valued, and guests are encouraged to “feel at home” by “helping themselves to the fridge,” etc.

It makes perfect sense that a Confucian culture would have kikubari built into its hospitality model since the guest is required—by Confucian protocol—to refuse any gift or kindness offered by the host. Kikubari, in effect, removes the social requirement of the guest to refuse the drink by not asking the question in the first place. The result is that most guests get a cup of tea—or a beer—whether they want it or not.

In this sense, kikubari is the antithesis of choice.

So this is much bigger than a fake English instructor being forced to drink sweet creamy instant coffee. It’s about the same foreigner getting a fork and knife because his Japanese waiter assumes he can’t use chopsticks; it’s about being spoken to in unintelligible broken English because the Japanese taxi driver can’t fathom the notion of a foreigner mastering his language; it’s having everything decided in advance—the restaurant, the meal, the beer—because the needs of the collective trump individual desires.

With four decades of Japan experience under my belt, I’ve learned to appreciate the intent and thoughtfulness behind kikubari, along with its value-added application in customer service. Even when it misses the mark.

And yet as much as I profess to love the practice of kikubari, it’s kind of like eating ice cream: wonderful in the right doses, but too much can make you sick. Sometimes kikubari can be so annoying that I just want to scream, “Let me decide!”

Bridging the Kikubari Gap

The best way to build this bridge is to come at it from both sides of the cultural divide.

For non-Japanese on the receiving end of unwanted kikubari, my advice is to recognize it for what it is and appreciate the intention behind the gesture.

For Japanese hosts dealing with non-Japanese, it’s a good idea to study up on your foreign guests so you truly understand what they want. Also understand that offering choice is itself a useful cross-cultural kikubari technique; anticipate that your foreign guests want choice and give them options. They might surprise you and ask for green tea.

Japanese should also be aware that some foreigners are seeking authentic Japanese experiences. That the more adventurous foreigners would prefer to fumble their way through dinner using chopsticks, practice their imperfect Japanese with taxi drivers, drink green tea and eat sushi, natto and rice crackers. But you’ll never know unless you ask.

And finally, Japanese can avoid disappointment by not expecting kikubari from foreign hosts. For better or for worse, kikubari is not how most foreigners roll. Japanese should consider this an opportunity to step out of their kikubari world and embrace the freedom of having choices.

The dark side of kikubari notwithstanding, our world clearly needs more kikubari not less. We need more observation, more consideration of others’ needs, more conscious acts of kindness. In my book, the benefits of kikubari far outweigh its dark side. And if that means occasionally drinking sweet creamy instant coffee, then I’m happy to do my part.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

Korea and Japan Practicing Aloha?

With the rhetoric heating up between Japan and Korea over the disputed Takeshima islets,  a beautiful reminder of the counterintuitive possibilities. Who says Japanese and Koreans can’t hug? This young Japanese man set out to prove it can be done, aloha at its best.

One subtle point about the video that caught my eye: notice that the editor chose to block out the face of the only hostile person shown in the video. Beautiful.

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