Tag Archives: hawaii

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

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A Moving Letter from a Japanese Rainbow Mom

For those who didn’t read the last post, we recently facilitated an event that had our local charter school, Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science, hosting Rainbow for Japan Kids, a group of 20 middle-school students from the hardest hit areas of northern Japan. The teachers, staff and students at HAAS showed so much aloha, and sent these kids home with smiles on their faces.

In following up with Japan America Society of Hawaii, I learned that the Japanese mother of one of our “rainbow kids” wrote a letter of thanks to JASH’s partner in Japan, the Bikki organization.

I was so moved and inspired by the letter that I asked permission from JASH to translate into English and publish, keeping names anonymous. They granted permission, so here we are.

Letters like the one below is what drives our passion to connect Japan with Hawaii, especially the kids.

Before reading on, it might be a good idea to break out the tissue. Hope it inspires you as much as it did me:

My daughter participated in the recent study trip to Hawaii.

Tales about her Hawaii adventures started as soon as she got home. Together we scrolled through some 300 pictures she took; one by one she described each day of the trip.

My daughter is the one who sets the mood in our home. Since the disaster she’s been working hard volunteering to help others, from cleaning toilets to playing with small children. She’s been working non-stop everyday from morning to early evening.

Even on the day our Arahama home was destroyed, she insisted on going in place of me, her hesitant mom, to a town reduced to rubble. The one who ended up going back with my husband to do the final clean up, was my daughter.

I haven’t seen my daughter cry since the disaster. She’s always putting up a positive front. Even as a small child she always endured things without complaint, always tried hard–sometimes too hard. So when she was selected to go on this trip, it was my hope that an open, recuperative place like Hawaii would help her relax and be herself.

When she returned home, I saw that that’s exactly what happened: her heart was at peace. I could see the trouble in her heart and physical stress had melted away, and that she had grown as a person.

Since elementary school my daughter has dreamed of becoming a pre-school teacher working with young children. She’s been so inspired by the devoted nursery school professionals at the disaster site offering care to victims, that she’s been volunteering her time to help them as well.

Since coming back from Hawaii, my daughter said she still wants to become a certified nursery care professional, but would also like to pursue a calling where she can help even more people. She doesn’t know what kind of work is out there yet, but she says she wants to go out into the world and figure that out. I believe this trip to Hawaii, and the many people she met while she was there, had a lot to do with her new direction. I’m looking forward to seeing the kind of person my daughter will become.

It is my hope that my daughter will not let the disaster defeat her. I want her to believe in her future, and keep moving forward.

It’s also my hope that from now on, my daughter can stop putting up a false, brave front, and move on with her life as a genuinely happy, positive person.

My heartfelt appreciation to everyone for their time, their help and the valuable experiences they gave my daughter.

Thank you very much.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan, 2011

“Flash Mob Hula” at 38,000 Feet: Hawaii Flies with Hawaiian Airlines!

I love my client Hawaiian Airlines. This is pure genius because only Hawaiian Airlines could pull it off. I’m blessed to work with the talented folks who made the “flash mob hula”  idea happen. At 38,000 feet mind you! Check out this video, it’ll make you smile!

Secrets to Pleasing Japanese Customers

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

Lei Day for Japan Rocked!


Keali’i Reichel

I finally got around to organizing my pictures and clips of the Lei Day for Japan event held in Honolulu on May 1st, 2011. A big mahalo to Hawaiian Airlines for organizing and sponsoring this event. And an equally big mahalo to all the entertainers, chefs and volunteers who donated their time to make this event a smashing success. 1,500 people attended and over $200,000 was raised in this top-notch affair. As you can see by the camera angle in pictures and video clips below, we were fortunate enough to have front row seats. (Just wish we had a better camera!) Toward the end of this post is a clip of Jake Shimabukuro with his mom doing an impromptu performance. It was a hoot! (We’ll follow up with his other performances in future posts.)

But let’s start with some pictures of the food and give lots of credit to the chefs who volunteered their time and resources to make this event a success. (Check out the “credits” at the end.) In the meantime, here’s a sampling of food we were served:

Ono Food!

Almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Last but not least…

Patrick Makuakane (featuring Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu)

Natalie Ai Kamauu

Check out this live clip of Jake Shimabukuro with his mom:

Chef’s who graciously volunteered their time:


Kevin Hanny, 12th Ave Grill

Alan Wong, Alan Wong’s

John Matusbara, Azure

Rodney Uehara, Beachhouse at Moana Surfrider

Cyrus Goo, Cafe Laufer

Chai Chaowasaree, Chai’s Island Bistro

George Mavrothalassitis, Chef Mavro’s

DK Kodama, DK’s Steak and Sansei Seafood

Matt Nelson, Don Ho’s Island Grill

Lawtene Angelias, Eggs’n Things

Aldo Romero, Gate Gourmet

Glenn Chu, Indigo

JJ Luangkhot, JJ Bistro and French Pastry

Colin Hazama, Kauai Grill Culinary Concepts by Jean-Goerges

Alan Takasaki, Le Bistro

Marc Anthony Freiberg, Mariposa at Neiman Marcus

Eberhard Kintscher, Michel’s at the Colony Surf

Masaharu Morimoto, Morimoto Waikiki

Andy Degamo, Morton’s The Steakhouse

BethAn Nishijima, Nori’s

Fred DeAngelo, Ola at the Turtle Bay Resort

ERic Leterc, The Pacific Club

Elmer Guzman, Poke Stop

Roy Yamaguchi, Roy’s

Leighton Miyakawa, Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Bryan Ashlock, Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa

Colin Nishida, Side Street Inn

Joy Chaowasaree, Singha Thai Cuisine

Goran Streng, Tango Contemporary Cafe

Chuck Furuya, Master Sommelier and Manager of Vino and Hiroshi’s

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

The Power of Hula to Uplift Japan

It’s wonderful when I can find a way to tie together Hawaii and Japan in the same post, even better when I can work in a hula theme during this wonderful time of year in Hawaii that we call “Merrie Monarch week”.

For readers who aren’t aware, Hawaiian culture is booming in Japan, especially hula. According to Hawaii Tourism Japan, over 400,000 people in Japan are studying hula. That’s an incredible number, more than the total number of hula dancers in all of Hawaii they say.

But as you might imagine, in the last month not much hula dancing was happening in Eastern Japan, certainly not Iwaki City.

And yet twenty nine very resilient Japanese ladies from Iwaki are already back practicing their passion. This is incredible in light of what they’ve gone through. I could try describing what happened to their city, but this clip says it better than I ever could:

For the geographically challenged, Iwaki is in the southern part of Fukushima.

To get a feel for the scale of the town, it’s the 10th largest city in Japan with a population just shy of 350,000 people. And as you saw in the video above, it took some serious hits from the disaster.

But these hula dancers–many who lost their homes in the tsunami–refuse to let a disaster stop them from dancing. They already have plans to re-start hula lessons in a facility on the premise of a local hot-springs resort called, appropriately, “Spa Resort Hawaiians”.

But before doing so, they are going to take their hula show on the road. Their objective: inspire the rest of Japan with the power of hula!

As you might expect from the Japanese work ethic and attention to detail, the ladies are working hard to do the hula tradition proud. The leader of the hula group, Yukari Kato, summed up the goal of the tour: “we want to tap into the power of dance and inspire the rest of Japan by showing that Iwaki City is working hard, in high spirits and smiling.”

The power of hula–and the power of Japanese women–never cease to amaze and inspire me. These ladies have some serious “mana” happening!

Hawaii can take pride in the fact that its ancient tradition is helping uplift our Japanese friends during very tough times.

(Source: NHK News. Unfortunately the original link to the source article no longer provides access.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011

How Can We Help Japan?

The Japan disaster is personal. If you read the previous post you know that my son, in-laws and friends live in Japan.

But it’s personal for other reasons. I’ll always feel indebted to Japan. The people of Japan forever changed the fortunes of an ignorant, immature 19-year kid from the North side of Chicago (um, that would be me 34 years ago). And my Japanese hosts did it with a patience that I didn’t at all deserve. They helped and nurtured me from adolescence to adulthood, no small feat as I was a royal pain in the arse. For this reason alone, these are my people!

And right now I feel helpless because I can’t help them. Can you tell it’s eating at me?

So it’s time to shift gears and do something; if not for the wonderful Japanese folks who hosted and put up with me for over ten years–then for my own sanity.

In this sense my motives are truly selfish. I am choosing to take action for my own peace of mind; unfortunately I haven’t yet figured out what action that might be. And this brings us to the point of today’s post: to solicit your ideas.

But before going there, let’s talk a little story first.

What Do I Do For a Living?

Just got back from a gig on the mainland. Did four seminars in two and a half days, that’s three half days plus one full day. (This doesn’t count the thirty-plus hours spent making my round-trip trek.) The entire trip took four days. As you might guess, I’m pooped as I type this.

So what’s my gig? Some folks call me an “intercultural trainer”, but my work is much more encompassing, and rarely do I “train” in the classical sense. “Educator” fits much better, as my sessions are designed to expand minds–to offer clients a deeper perspective by helping them view the world through the cultural lens of their counterparts.

On my business card my title is “Consultant”. The title doesn’t quite capture what I do either. People consult with me but I avoid giving clients answers. The deal is that I help them define the problem, then they come up with their own answers.

My wife calls me a “cross-cultural marriage counselor”, and that’s about as good a description as I’ve heard. I’m tempted to put the title on my business card.

My goal in every seminar I administer is not to tell people what to do or how to act. Instead I focus on helping them understand the current situation from a perspective they never before considered: through the eyes of coworkers (or customers) on the other side of the cultural fence. Based on this new perspective, I challenge them to reflect and decide for themselves the appropriate way to adjust.

I’ve been using this approach most of my career. And I’ve found over the years that once people get a glimpse of themselves through the lens of another culture, most know exactly what to do and how to adjust. (And yes I offer guidance when asked for it, but rarely do I lay down hard-and-fast rules–more on this in a future post.)

An Emotional Gig

One of my seminars on this recent trip was open to the public (as opposed to working privately with clients “in-house”). Participants were Japanese expatriate managers from various Japanese-owned companies around the Midwest. This particular seminar was geared toward helping them better understand the cultural values, motivations and behavior of their American counterparts, and challenging them to reflect on better ways to communicate and cooperate.

If we stick with my wife’s “cross-cultural marriage counselor” metaphor, then in this session only one “spouse” was present. (I actually do joint sessions that bring Japanese and Americans together, but this type of session is only practical when done internally at a single company.)

As far as my teaching style, most folks would say my seminars have a talk-story flavor (to use the local Hawaii vernacular). Telling stories is the best way I know of to engage and connect with an audience.

My stories always have a moral, but I try to keep the tone light. And when I’m “on my game” I’ve even been accused of being funny. As amazing as it sounds, I have a knack for making a roomful of anal, poker-faced Japanese engineers crack up, humor that only a factory-rat would appreciate. (I’m an ex-factory-rat.) My goal is to deliver a high energy seminar that’s enlightening and fun.

A Dilemma

And therein lies the dilemma I faced: how to reconcile the somber reality of Japan’s current crisis, with my happy-go-lucky, lighthearted teaching style.

Contemplating how best to approach the gig, I didn’t catch a wink of sleep on my red-eye flight from Honolulu to my Midwest destination. (It didn’t help that a baby a couple seats away was screaming most of the flight.) The more I thought about Japan’s current situation, the sadder and more emotional I got.

After some reflection I decided that the best approach was to take time at the beginning of the seminar to express my heartfelt regrets, sorrow for what happened, then let the chips fall wherever. I figured if there ever was a situation to follow my heart, this was it.

And it turned out to be the right decision, although for the first time in my life I almost broke down in front of an audience. (And it’s really hard to cry when you’re speaking Japanese, at least for me.) My stoic participants tried their best to keep a stiff upper lip, but pain was written all over their faces. The heaviness in the room was, as they say, palpable.

I managed to bumble my way through the opening without choking up too much. It was far from a perfect delivery, but after I was done I felt at peace. And it put me in a zone: the rest of the seminar flowed. We even shared a few laughs. We connected, and it felt good.

In fact it felt so good, that doing nothing is no longer an option for me. I need to get as busy as I can helping Japan. Here’s what I’ve got lined up so far:

We will donate money, either through Japan America Society Hawaii (JASH), or through our local charter school. Japan Red Cross is also a safe option. Other honorable organizations are out there, just be careful not to get scammed. (Please do your due diligence.)

I’m happy to say that Steve Hirakami, the Principal of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science (HAAS) here in Pahoa, approached us to ask if my wife and I would help HAAS spearhead a fund-raiser for Japan. It’s worth mentioning that my wife teaches Japanese language at HAAS, so Steve’s idea is to have students in her class take the lead. Of course we jumped at the opportunity. We’ll be meeting with Steve this week to discuss the details. We’ll keep you posted on developments.

We’ve also reached out to Japan America Society Hawaii, and even to one of our clients in Honolulu, a company that is planning a fund-raiser in the near future. Still don’t know if there’s a place for us to make a contribution, but we offered to volunteer our time in any way that might help the cause. Once again, more on this as we figure out how we might contribute.

That’s all we’ve got so far. My inclination is to find a way to reach out to other businesses here on the Big Island, or anywhere in the islands for that matter. I want to get the word out here in Hawaii that helping Japan is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also in Hawaii’s best interest to do so.

The Japan-Hawaii Connection

Japan is a beloved member of Hawaii’s ohana, with deep cultural connecting points that are so obvious they’re easy to miss.

The most obvious connecting point is the local Japanese-American population in Hawaii, now in their 4th generation. Some of the old timers are still around; they speak a style of Japanese from another era, often mixed with English and pidgin. Many Japanese customs (like removing your shoes before entering a home) have taken root with all ethnicities in Hawaii. And most local folks love Japanese cuisine.

Just as significant as the Japan-immigrant connection, are some striking similarities between Japan and local Hawaiian culture. It’s why I believe that the popularity of Hawaiiana continues to boom in Japan today; it’s why over 400,000 Japanese are studying Hula today.

Indeed Japan and Hawaii share much of the same cultural DNA. For this reason, Japanese “get” the concept of climbing the mountain, picking a flower for their lei, and thanking the gods for the beautiful gift. The Japanese “get” the idea of paying homage to Pele through dance (as demonstrated through traditional Kahiko Hula). They “get” the concept of honoring nature.

Both cultures were incubated on a chain of volcanic islands. Earthquakes, tsunamis and eruptions are a way of life stretching back to the arrival of their inhabitants. No surprise both cultures respect and accept the awe-inspiring power of nature, and share a desire to live in harmony with it.

Both cultures pay homage to its ancestors.

Interestingly both spiritual traditions feature a powerful female deity who gave birth to their islands. (“Amaterasu Omikami, meet Pele!”)

Both spiritual traditions are polytheistic, both animate the phenomenal world with spirits; both believe that man is a part of nature. (Japanese didn’t even have a word for nature until relatively recent times.)

Both cultures are resourceful due to, ironically, lack of resources. Logically both traditions were adept at conserving resources–not because it was fashionable, but for their very survival. It’s tough living sustainably on a resource-scarce island.

The aforementioned outlook on the awe-inspiring power of nature would seem to contradict the intense love both cultures also feel toward nature. And yet somehow, some way that’s how it worked out. Japanese nature-inspired aestheticism is world-renowned. Hawaiians honor nature through music and dance (and yes, Hawaiian aesthetics are pleasant to the eye as well.)

Tying all this together, the Japanese love Hawaii and Hawaii loves Japan. Hawaii’s close cultural ties with Japan make them cultural cousins, ohana. Aloha means embracing friends and family in good times and bad. This is Hawaii’s chance to step forward and embrace an old friend. It will need to be a long embrace.

Which Brings Me to My Point…

I’m looking for ideas. I want to figure out how I might apply my skills (as wretched as they may be) to raise awareness and, ideally, inspire folks to give or do whatever they can to help.

One way is by educating people–specifically here in Hawaii–on how important Japan is to us, and why we need to link arms and pitch in.

I’m particularly interested in hearing long-term ideas on how we might offer continuous support, help and goodwill until Japan gets back on its feet, because a one-shot deal won’t cut it over the long-haul.

Final Thoughts

The scale of this disaster is beyond human comprehension. There seems to be a perception floating around that Japan is such a highly developed and economically rich nation, that they don’t need our help. It’s not at all true but that’s the perception and that’s all that matters–which means we have to find a way to change the perception.

Here’s the reality: recovery will take years in Japan. The human suffering happening right now in Northern Japan is as real as the suffering experienced by the poor folks in Haiti and New Zealand. Japan clearly had an advantage in terms of its infrastructure, development and warning systems. But the scale of the disaster swept away most of those advantages like the monster tsunami that wiped out Sendai. Now the survivors hurt. And when people hurt, we all hurt equally.

The human suffering will be further compounded by the economic impact in lost productivity while Japan struggles to recover. The cost to rebuild will be astronomical and that doesn’t even take into consideration the after-effects of the nuclear crisis. To further complicate matters, where will Japan’s electricity come from to drive their economic recovery?

Even if you’re not the altruistic type, there’s a practical reason to help: we live in a connected, interdependent world. It’s in the world’s best interest to continue enjoying the talents and strengths of a vibrant, economically healthy Japan. By extension, it’s in the world’s best interest to jump in and roll up our sleeves.

Please keep your thoughts with the folks suffering in Northern Japan. They need all the help and support they can get. Thanks in advance for your willingness to help the cause. Feel free to comment here or email me at hawaiilovesjapan@gmail.com.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011