Tag Archives: cross-cultural communication

The Cryptic Jargon of Cultural Anthropology


“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 behavior 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 until 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 free will 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.

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-jumbo 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 how 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

Communication, Authenticity, and Breaking the No-Hug Rule

“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. and Mildred Reed Hall

Let’s expand on the quote above: I submit that the essence of communication itself is more about releasing responses than sending messages.

Sales folks know this intuitively. To them, “communication” means getting you to buy their product or service. Hence, the salesperson’s message is structured around achieving that desired response, and there are so many ways to skin that cat. Said another way, no matter how “right” your message is, if you don’t get your desired response then what’s the point?

The counter argument to this might be that sometimes you want to just “tell someone off” by hitting them with the painful truth. But even this scenario fits Hall’s model: it’s very effective communication to punch someone in the nose with the truth if your goal is to shock them, and even more effective if your goal is to tick them off. One possible upside of the “painful truth” approach is that you get the occasional guy or gal who respond by reflecting and taking appropriate measures to improve. But more often than not, the recipient of “the truth” gets wounded, goes into a defensive posture, and becomes obsessed with being “right” rather than dealing with the truth.

In this sense, communication is strategic. Anyone can construct a message. But it takes real skill and savvy to package a message that elicits not just a response, but a desired response.

With an open, inquisitive mind, just about anyone can learn to improve communication skills. It starts with a foundation of authenticity.

Authenticity and Not Creeping People Out

One of the myths about cross-cultural communication is that you have to act like the culture you’re trying to connect with. Problem with this approach is that authenticity–who you are–gets lost in the charade. Here’s my logic: if you can’t be who you are what’s the point of connecting with anyone in the first place?

Trust me, when Americans try to “act Japanese” they totally creep out the Japanese. And when Japanese act like Americans it creeps me out too. Creeping each other out is not a good way to start a relationship.

So this is about as close to a “rule” as you’ll hear from me: be authentic!

Why I Don’t Do “Dos and Don’ts”

You won’t hear me telling clients specifically how to behave with another culture, no “dos and don’ts” in my world. My job is to define the situation and let others decide for themselves what to do. This approach is based on my unshakeable belief that people will only do what they decide to do, and that most folks resist when told what to do.

My other belief is that once people are properly educated, most will make good decisions and do the right thing. To abuse an old cliché, if telling people what to do is leading the horse to water, then educating them is what makes the horse thirsty. We’re in the business of making folks thirsty enough to drink the water.

This approach is reflected in our seminars: the first half is a concentrated lecture to “define the current situation.” This means letting the participants know what the other side says about them, both positive and negative; it means getting participants to understand the other culture’s basic values, history, geography, etc, and then tying the information to how members of that culture think and feel about the world. The idea is to bring to the surface the key value gaps that hinder cooperation and communication.

The last half of the seminar is an interactive workshop that throws participants into various situations, in which we challenge them to reflect on newly gained knowledge, then tell us what they would do. Participants never fail to amaze me with their ability to creatively apply knowledge within the context of these scenarios, based on an understanding of basic big-picture cultural traditions. It’s pure magic.

The point of all this is that to employ an effective communication approach toward someone from another culture, it’s essential to understand that culture’s values, and how its members view you. But it’s impossible to come up with a set of “cross-cultural commandments” of any practical value. There are an infinite number of situations and personality combinations, so there would be too many rules to learn, most of which would need to be broken anyway. Absolute rules don’t work in the dynamic, unpredictable world of human interactions. The best you can hope for are general guidelines.

A dear Japanese friend, who happens to be an engineer, once told me he preferred working with machines instead of people. His reasoning was that machines are logical and consistent, while humans are neither. Human inconsistency frustrated him.

To his point, in the realm of human relationships there’s no such thing as a “scientific law of gravity” that puts the world into a tidy, predictable, absolute package. In the cross-cultural universe, sometimes Newton’s apple falls, sometimes it floats away, and sometimes it explodes.

In the end, each person has to decide if and how to adjust based on any given situation. The challenge is finding that cross-cultural “sweet-spot” that captures one’s authenticity, while making just enough adjustments to get a desired response.

Breaking the No-Hug Rule, A Case Study

Here’s a public confession for readers to chew on: I really don’t believe in universal cross-cultural commandments because  I am an unrepentant, serial rule breaker.

Here’s a great concrete example: the Japanese don’t hug. We all know they bow. Based on this information we could chisel into stone a cross-cultural commandment that states, “Thou shalt not hug Japanese people!”

Guarantee I’d break this rule every time I met a Japanese friend in Hawaii. I’d break it every time we went to Hilo Airport to pick up Japanese visitors, when we give them a lei and a warm forbidden hug. (Yes it freaks them out; but it also breaks the ice and makes them smile. Our Japanese guests usually reciprocate with three nervous pats on my back–a “distant hug” for sure–but much better than nothing.)

Breaking the no-hug commandment works because the Japanese visitor knows we’re in Hawaii, on our turf. Not to mention that secretly, deep down, many Japanese actually enjoy hugging, precisely because it’s not something they’re allowed to do in their world. To the Japanese, hugging is foreign; it’s Hawaii; it’s exotic; and it’s cool–especially when done with a “Hawaii local”.

We’ve made many new Japanese friends in Hawaii. When they visit our home we hug. And when we hook up with them in Japan, we hug them there too. Hugging is a visual manifestation of a relationship born and nurtured in Hawaii, a custom that works across the culture gap in the right situations. Observing our Japanese friends’ body language during these hugging encounters, we can see they relish doing the “Hawaii thing”, especially in front of their Japanese friends. And we’re very happy to oblige because, well, breaking rules is fun!

But here’s the catch: without a deep and broad understanding of the guy on the other side of the cultural fence, one runs the risk of breaking rules without knowing it, a big handicap when reaching across that cultural fence. You really need to know the rules if you’re going to break them. That’s the value of education and awareness.

In ensuing posts we’ll look at key concepts that help sharpen cross-cultural awareness, guide decisions on appropriate behavior, and provide strategic insights into crafting messages that elicit desired responses.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

“Global Babying” and Why It’s Good to Feel Humiliated

In light of the fact that Hawaii’s Little League juggernaut, Waipio, just put a whooping on Pearland Texas (the mercy rule kicked in after Hawaii was up 10-0 in the  5th inning with a no-hitter to boot!), thought my son’s recent post on “sportsmanship” in Japan would provide an interesting cross-cultural perspective on the different ways we perceive the meanings of words. Note that my son is bilingual/bi-cultural, lives in Japan, and played college (American) football for four years at Japan’s Teikyo University. I find his insights fascinating. (Oya Baka for sure!) Enjoy 🙂

By Ry Sullivan

“Global Babying” is a phenomenon that is infecting our world. From the time we are born, we are subjected to all kinds of hardships and challenges. In school we encounter bullying, tough teachers and the occasional pants soiling. On many occasions the phrase “Life isn’t fair” is pounded into our brains to the point where we are resigned to the fact that we can only keep moving forward when something unjust happens to us. This is a good thing…Read the rest of this post>>

Glimpses of Culture Through How We Dine (and the Power of Kikubari)


Did you ever consider how many questions you have to answer just to eat at a restaurant in America? The interrogation begins the moment you walk in the door: Booth or a table? What to drink? What kind of beer? (Can I see an I.D. young lady?) Appetizer? Soup or salad? What kind of dressing? How to prepare the burger – rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, or well-done? What kind of cheese on it – American, Swiss, cheddar, or Monterey Jack? Lettuce? Tomato? Onions? Curly or steak fries? With cheese melted on them?

And so on.

How we break bread together speaks volumes about our values, and (surprisingly) reflects patterns of behavior found in the business world. To illuminate the different ways Japanese and American teams behave at work, I like to compare the way the two cultures approach the dining ritual. As strange as it sounds, we work much like we eat.

Individual Choice in America

The American pre-meal interrogation alluded to above is a natural outgrowth of a culture that values individualism and personal choice. American culture assumes that people are not only free to order whatever they want, but that they should have plenty of choices so the meal can be customized to the individual’s specifications.

When the food finally arrives, the meal commences with unspoken assumptions about who is supposed to eat and drink what at the table. Even the beer bottle is sized for the individual to accommodate that American love of personal choice. An inevitable side effect of individual-sized packaging is that it delineates a priori each person’s area of responsibility. This is MY beer!

And the beer-drinking American would never think of filling someone else’s glass with his beer (it would be darn difficult pouring beer into those narrow, long-necked bottles anyway). The American diner assumes, often without being conscious of it, that his “responsibilities” are to drink his own beer and eat his own entrée–and ditto that for his table-mates. Focused and efficient, the American proceeds to consume his meal and enjoy his beer with little regard for the needs of the people around him. And it is all good, of course, because everyone at the table implicitly agrees on the rules.

How Do the Japanese Dine?

First, few questions are asked up-front because the Japanese meal is less concerned with individual choice than with anticipating the overall needs of the group and proactively fulfilling them. Besides the obvious goal of enjoying good food, dinner is considered the ideal setting for building and nurturing relationships.

A typical Japanese business dinner will begin with several large, frosty bottles of beer set in the middle of the table. Each diner gets a small, empty drinking glass, rendering the boundaries of drinking responsibilities fuzzy from the start. How much of that beer belongs to me?

In a land where harmony rules and the individual is but a “fraction” of the whole, it’s not appropriate for the Japanese diner to put a personal desire above the needs of his table-mates – God forbid, pouring yourself a glass of beer! Instead, each person at the table focuses on attending to the needs of everyone else. The low-ranking employee will be especially vigilant in filling others’ glasses when the opportunity presents itself, always before being asked to do so. Senior-ranking members will reciprocate, so beer is poured almost non-stop during the course of dinner. And it just brought back a fond memory…years ago an American friend, thoroughly overwhelmed by his first Japanese business dinner, leaned over and whispered in my ear in slurred tones, “I drank fifty-three half-glasses of beer!”

Parallels in the Workplace

Just for fun let’s superimpose the dining behavior described above onto Japanese and American group behavior in the workplace.

The cultural reality is that in an individualistic culture it makes sense that companies would invent “individual job descriptions”. Conversely in a group-oriented culture like Japan’s, it makes sense to have everything structured down to the level of “group job description”–and stop there. No surprise these different ways of organizing and distributing work can ruffle feathers in a workplace shared by Japanese and Americans. Here’s a conversation I once heard between a Japanese production control manager and his American subordinate:

Japanese Boss: Why didn’t you do that?

American: It’s not my job!

Japanese Boss: Of course it is!

American: You never told me that!

Japanese boss: You should’ve known!

America: How would I know–it’s not in my job description!

Japanese boss: Your job description is to do whatever is necessary to help the company!

And so on.

Like the American diner’s entrée, job responsibilities in American companies are defined a priori via precisely documented job descriptions. As the American diner is expected to focus on eating his clearly-defined entrée, the American employee is expected to adhere to his or her clearly defined job-description. No surprise that fulfilling the requirements set forth in one’s job description is every American employee’s top priority. And just as the American diner knows in his heart that “this food is mine and that is not”, so goes the delineation of responsibilities at work: “this job is mine; and that is not.” (These words never fail to make a Japanese manager’s blood boil.)

Japanese team dynamics truly come alive when Japanese businessmen gather for dinner at a restaurant and the alcohol starts flowing. Meal portions are ambiguous from the start since a good portion of the food is set out in common dishes for everyone to share. This parallels exactly how Japanese employees approach their jobs; they do not work from a strict, predefined personal job description, but rather draw from a common pool of work, from their fuzzy group job description. And the proactive nature of the beer-pouring ritual parallels how the Japanese employee is expected to interact with his or her team at work. The employee must stay alert, be observant, identify any “half-empty glasses” that need to be filled, then promptly take action without being asked to do so.

Interestingly the Japanese beer-pouring ritual offers glimpses at Japanese-style customer-service as well. The idea of first observing people’s needs, then proactively fulfilling them, is the ultimate standard in Japanese-style customer service. The Japanese word for this is “kikubari”, translated as “care”, “attentiveness” or “consideration for others.”

An old ANA Airlines advertisement captures the essence of kikubari:


At ANA, service isn’t just a reactive endeavor. It’s steeped in centuries of Japanese culture. That’s why our flight attendants take great pride in delivering outstanding service even before you’re aware you need it. Whether it’s a cold drink, a warm duvet or any other touch of Japanese hospitality, we’ll be there faster than you can hit a call button. After all, we’ve been training for a thousand years or so.

The American service sector would do well to study the art of kikubari. It is a powerful communication tool that requires no special skill, and no words to be spoken. A nice little side-effect is it removes the pesky language barrier from the equation altogether.

Japanese and American team dynamics are so different that you might wonder how the twain could ever possibly meet. The answer is through a willingness to cooperate, a mutual awareness of the other culture’s way of doing things, and a recognition that complementary cultural strengths can be harnessed for the greater good. American cultural strengths include efficiency, focus, and creativity; Japanese culture boasts a proactive approach to work, attention to detail, careful planning, and relentless follow up to ensure plans get implemented. Both cultures share a strong work ethic and competitive fire. Figure out how to harness these strengths and you’ll create a thing of beauty!

So where does the twain meet? I see kikubari as a powerful connecting point, a relationship-building tool with universal application. For any two people struggling to communicate, my advice is to seek out opportunities to practice kikubari--opportunities to do something kind and considerate for the other person. By incorporating kikubari into your daily interactions you strengthen teamwork, reduce the need for words, improve customer service, and build human relationships.

(For more on the subject of kikubari, check out Japanese Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009