Tag Archives: intercultural communication

There’s No Rule Book for Building Cross-Cultural Bridges

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Clients occasionally ask me to incorporate a list of “dos and don’ts” into my cross-cultural training. I always balk because I don’t have any rules, at least none that I haven’t broken. But if I did have rules, they’d go something like this:

1) Be authentic.

2) Don’t do dos-and-don’ts.

Let’s start with authenticity. It’s a beautiful thing and grossly undervalued. For people who are self-aware and authentic by nature, it’s an effortless state-of-being that serves them well. Other people spend a lifetime searching for their true authentic selves and never find it. The rest of us are somewhere in between, doing our best. But however evolved and self-aware one may be, nothing is more powerful than authenticity in connecting with people, whether within or across cultures. If you can’t be yourself after all, what’s the point of making a human connection in the first place?

Here’s an extreme example of authenticity trumping cultural differences, one that’s so counterintuitive I struggle to believe it myself.

I have an American friend who is loud, brutally direct, and obnoxious—even by American standards. He once bluntly told a dear Japanese friend in a public setting that her English was incomprehensible (it wasn’t), and that she should “really work harder on improving it.” (This coming from someone who struggles with his own native tongue.) And yet, this friend is also one of the most authentic, attentive, and caring people I know. In a bull-in-a-China-shop sort of way.

Now if I were to list the traits most likely to alienate the Japanese, loud, direct and obnoxious would be at the top. Which means that in no known theoretical universe should my friend be getting along well with Japanese folks. And yet, all the Japanese people who have met him are crazy about him. His authenticity and attentiveness somehow cancels out his brashness and lack of tact. As an interculturalist, I can’t explain how he does it. All I can do is point to his personality and shrug my shoulders.

And while I believe adjustments in cross-cultural interactions with Japanese (or any other culture) are critical in building bridges, going to the extreme of “acting Japanese” is a horrible and ineffective option, as it will only creep out the Japanese; they value authenticity just like the rest of us.

But hitting the cross-cultural sweet spot is indeed a tough balancing act. For even the most sincere, authentic person in the world struggles to find that elusive balance between staying true to oneself and making just the right adjustments to build that bridge.

The question then is how to strike the right balance. The challenge is finding your cross-cultural sweet spot, a place unique to—and only discoverable by—each person. We’ll come back to this. First, let’s put to rest the dreaded dos-and-don’ts list.

As mentioned above, any cross-cultural rule I could possibly make, I could just as easily break. Let’s use a real example. We all know that Japanese greet each other by bowing. We also know most Japanese will adjust their greeting style by shaking hands when meeting Westerners. But anyone who has regular contact with Japanese folks also knows they don’t hug. Exceptions exist, of course, but hugging is not a common Japanese pattern of behavior, even within Japanese families, much less with overly affectionate foreigners. In other words, if I were so inclined, I could incorporate a “don’t-hug-Japanese-people” rule into my training. It’s safe to say that following this rule would be advisable in most encounters with the Japanese.

Before proceeding any further, full disclosure: I come from a family of huggers, and after living in Hawaii for fifteen years, I’ve become even “huggier.” My Japanese wife is—thanks to 33 years of intensive hugging therapy in the U.S.—a recovering non-hugger. Together we break the no-hug rule every time a Japanese guest visits us on the Big Island of Hawaii. And we get away with it, because it’s all about authenticity and context.

Here’s the context: we always pick up our Japanese guests at Hilo airport. Upon their arrival, we put leis around their necks then move in quickly for our hug. The move surprises them, but it also breaks the ice and makes them smile; they know they’re on our turf now, and are happy to suspend their hug-less existence to experience life like a Hawaii local, however briefly.

Could it be the magic of Hawaii? Maybe. If it is, that magic travels well, for when I meet these same folks in Japan, they greet me with a smile and a hug. (And even seem to enjoy it.) And this illustrates in concrete terms the effectiveness of strategically breaking a “rule” in the name of authenticity and making a human connection.

But there is no rule book, no prescriptive paint-by-the-numbers scheme for every possible situation and personality one might encounter in a cross-cultural interaction. Connecting with people is an art, not a science. Education helps, but it’s up to each person to design and build a unique, customized bridge, one that starts from a place of authenticity and reaches across cultural and linguistic gaps to connect with a unique human being on the other end.

While I don’t recommend you start hugging Japanese people willy-nilly, you will be more successful at communicating by not letting one-size-fits-all rules limit how you engage. Find your sweet spot. Be authentic.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019
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Lessons in Culture from Twenty-Four Japanese Hula Dancers


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It was going to be a fun gig. Twenty-four hula instructors from Japan were to visit the Island of Hawaii to study traditional Hawaiian Kahiko-style hula from a local kumu hula. Our job was to facilitate communication and cooperation between the local hosts and our Japanese guests.

Upon arrival we placed a lei around the necks of our guests, then broke the Japanese “no-hug rule” with each and every one of them. (Freaked them out a little but made everyone smile.) Next stop was the local hotel where they rested and freshened up for our opening ceremony that evening.

The next four days our guests underwent intensive instruction from the local kumu hula, learning Kahiko basics and the proper chants, culminating in a sacred gathering at the edge of Hawaii’s smoking Halema’uma’u crater where they danced and chanted for Madame Pele.

I wasn’t there to witness the event myself but my better half was. Keep in mind my wife isn’t prone to hyperbole nor is she particularly spiritual. But if you believe her, it was an uplifting, awe-inspiring, emotional experience that ended with lots of hugging and crying.

If this is not a profoundly awesome way to connect cultures, I don’t know what is.

And while the ladies were crying and dancing and hugging and bonding up at the crater, I was busy at home setting up for our final celebration party, the last night before our guests would return to Japan.

We wanted the celebration to be authentic, with a human touch. So we decked out our car port, scrubbed the floor for our barefoot dancers, hired a local band to play traditional Hawaiian music, and brought in local-style food—or “grinds” as they call it here in the islands. We also invited lots of friends so our guests would get the chance to interact with living, breathing human beings outside their own culture.

And the party rocked! Our guests, most of whom weren’t shy about consuming beer and wine, spent most of the evening dancing hula in my carport, a lovely and memorable evening.

When the party was over, the charter bus pulled up to my front gate, our guests danced their way onto the bus, blew us kisses, and headed to Hilo where they’d spend their last evening on our lovely island. (Okay, I blew them kisses.)

The Danger of Gloating

The next day, shortly after our guests departed, we would glimpse our evaluations. Imagine our delight when we found nothing but glowing reviews.  An authentic experience! Exceeded our expectations! A life-changing event! It was perfect!

As you might imagine we were now pretty full of ourselves, and quietly gloated well into the afterglow of the project. Truth is the gig did go well. So well that we continued nurturing relationships within the Japanese halau. Forget that my gut was telling me we weren’t getting the whole story. Hey, when false information says you’re perfect who wants to argue?

Well, on our next visit to Japan we made it a point to visit our new friends in Tokyo and Osaka. As one might expect, our hosts graciously extended their exquisite brand of Japanese hospitality, in both instances taking us out for dinner and drinks. And once again we bonded, thanks to liberal amounts of beer and saké, although sadly no dancing this time. It was yet another step forward in nurturing our relationship. The after-dinner conversation with our Osaka friends in particular turned out to be a breakthrough.

Japan’s East-West Rivalry

For folks unfamiliar with Japan, it’s worth taking a cultural detour here to point out that the Tokyo and Kansai areas—Osaka in particular for this story—represent two distinct subcultures within Japan, a kind of “East-West” rivalry with historical roots that run deep.

I’ll preface my comments by saying that even though I spent all my ten years in Japan in the Tokyo area and have many dear friends who are from there, I absolutely love Western Japan’s Kansai culture.

As a native of Chicago I feel a particular kinship with Osaka folks. Just as Chicago is cast as “second city” to New York, so it goes for Osaka, always lurking in the shadow of Tokyo.

And even our sports teams have parallels. New York has the Yankees, Tokyo the Giants, both winning franchises with a long, proud history. In contrast, Chicago and Osaka have the hapless Cubs and Tigers with just two measly championships between them in the last thousand years or so.

But what I love most about Osakans is our mutual love of breaking rules, an endearing quality that resonates, probably because I come from a long line of rule-breakers myself. This also explains why I enjoy watching Osakans jaywalk with a purpose, ignore “Don’t Walk” signs, and shamelessly haggle at the department store then brag about their cheap score, behavior that describes many of my American friends to a T.

And just to show Tokyo folks that they don’t “play according to Hoyle,” Osakans even have their own escalator etiquette: while Tokyoites stand uniformly on the left, Osakans keep to the right, a brilliant passive-aggressive practice that just radiates defiance.

And last but not least, Americans generally find Osakans refreshing because they are more apt to tell you what they’re really thinking. And if we Americans like anything, it’s knowing where we stand with others.

Why Osaka and Tokyo Clash

So why would Osaka and Tokyo be so different? The widely accepted explanation is that Osaka is a “merchant culture” as opposed to Tokyo’s stodgy “samurai culture.”

The merchant-culture theory feeds the image of Osakans as pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth, free-spirited and fun-loving, the opposite of their cultural cousins in Tokyo. At the risk of overgeneralizing here, there is indeed some truth to this characterization of Osaka, as the cultural tendencies are obvious to anyone who has spent time in Japan’s bustling merchant city.

But if you ask  Osakans to describe  Tokyoites, you’ll probably hear words like “cold,” “shy,” “reserved,” maybe even “stuck up.”

Can you feel the resentment? It shouldn’t surprise that Osaka’s resentment toward Tokyo has been building for a long time, thanks largely to the Kansai area’s long, proud, thousand-year cultural history and political dominance—that and the fact that Tokugawa (the shogun famous for uniting feudal Japan under a single ruler) had the audacity to make the Eastern city of Edo the seat of political power from the early 1600s. To add insult to injury, old Edo was renamed “Tokyo” (literally “Eastern Capital”) when the Tokugawa shogunate officially ended in 1868, prompting the Emperor to up and move East. Ouch.

Well this naturally stuck in the craw of the entire Western Kansai district and resentment simmers today—albeit mostly in a playful, creative way. Suffice it to say that if a battle of wits ever erupted between Tokyo and Osaka, Tokyo wouldn’t have a chance.

One can only guess that it’s a lot more fun and edgy being a hustling, bustling merchant than an obedient, protocol-following Samurai, although I never tried the latter. Still, the merchant-Samurai angle seems to explain a lot.

With this backdrop, the after-hours drinking party we had with our straight-shooting Osaka hula friends will make a lot more sense. But before returning to our story, let’s examine one more cultural concept pertinent to the discussion.

Official Reality Or the Real Story?

The Japanese have a dualistic concept they call “honne/tatemae” (pronounced “hone-neh/tah-teh-mah-eh”). Think of honne as “one’s true feelings,” and tatemae as “the truth for public consumption.”

It’s a concept that manifests in all cultures, of course. The difference is that the Japanese openly acknowledge the gap between what people say and what they’re really thinking. In America we kind of sweep it under the rug, even though we know deep down it’s there.

With the honne-tatemae dichotomy out in the open, Japanese listeners are quick to discern between a speaker’s honne and tatemae in any given interaction, although it’s a bit of a guessing game even for Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, actually practice honne-tatemae but don’t have a name for it. It’s our quirky way of “looking the other way” and pretending it doesn’t exist. The closest concept to tatemae might be the “white lie” an American tells to spare someone’s feelings. What comes to mind is the standard American response when the host of a party asks a guest how the food tastes. No matter how bloody horrible it may be, most Americans will say it’s delicious just to keep the harmony and spare the feelings of the chef. (With the caveat that when brutally honest friends are involved all bets are off!)

So the real challenge in making an authentic connection with Japanese folks in general, is getting past the tatemae façade and gently coaxing out the honne. There are only two ways that I know of to accomplish this: one is develop a relationship of trust. The other is to go out drinking together.

Drinking is the quickest path to honne.

Honne…Osaka style

So back to our story–there we were, my wife and I in an Osaka beer joint, pounding mugs of Sapporo Draft with a dozen lovely Japanese hula dancers. And the more we partook of the hoppy brew, the more and more transparent our conversation became, and the elusive “honne” gradually made itself known.

Turns out there was, after all, one teeny-tiny little problem with our event—no, with MY event! The one thing my dear wife put me in charge of, the final celebration, left our guests with the proverbial “bad taste in their mouth”: they admitted to us–under the influence mind you–that we overwhelmed them with food, and that they felt really bad leaving so much uneaten. They said it was “mottainai” or “wasteful.”

As the guy who was charged with cleaning up after the party, I can attest that most of the ladies indeed ate only about half their portions. The rest went in the garbage because our guests were leaving early the next morning, and it just wasn’t practical to wrap up their food to go. This was totally on me.

Portion size might seem like a trivial matter, but it’s a great example of stumbling over a culture gap with the best of intentions. Ironically, as many deep connecting points that the Japanese share with Hawaii—volcanic island dwellers, shamanistic roots, a this-worldly spirituality with multiple deities (powerful female deities, mind you), and an awe-inspiring reverence for nature–where we stumbled was in the everyday, practical realm of breaking bread: in Hawaii it’s unacceptable to run out of food, so locals go to the extreme and provide massive portions. In contrast, Japan, a traditionally resource-starved culture, sees waste of any kind as taboo.

What our hula friends were telling us in their gentle, respectful, boozy way is that we failed to anticipate the optimum portion-size for them, forcing them to do what Japanese folks abhor doing: waste stuff, especially food.

Shame on me for not anticipating this from the start–I absolutely should have known better. The silver lining is that, thanks to our kind Osaka hula friends, I now in fact do know better.

It may sound strange to describe getting constructive feedback as a “bonding moment,” but it absolutely was in the most tangible sense. As I see it, our straight-talking Osaka friends thought enough of us to respectfully provide constructive feedback, although admittedly it took a few beers to get there. But in my eyes it was a wonderful gift, one that will last me a lifetime. What more can a friend ask for?

But the real gift was being part of an event that connected Japan with local Hawaii culture, and creating new friendships that continue today. Can’t think of a more gratifying way to to make a living.

Aloha nui from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

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!

On Driving Change Across Cultures & Rolling in the Mud

Installment #6 continued from:

 Driving Change with a Samurai Boss(1)

The Power of the Team(2)

Leading with Dirty Hands(3)

The Anatomy of Productivity(4)

The Team Owns It(5)

It’s tough enough introducing change into a monoculture organization–although it’s hard to imagine such an animal even exists today in our global economy. But let’s face it, people of all cultural persuasions resist change.

Let me rephrase that: People of all cultural persuasions resist change that’s forced on them. And this is really the crux of the matter.

To use an extreme example, suppose I’m living happily in my home back in Chicago, and suddenly the government knocks on my door and tells me they’re going to build a highway right through my living room, so I have to move out. Needless to say I’d be ticked off and resistant to leaving. If I really loved that home I might even chain myself to a tree when the bulldozers arrived. Or worse, hire a lawyer.

On the flip side, if I were living in the same house but decided on my own to move to, say, Hawaii because I’m sick of shoveling snow, then the decision to change would be mine, and therefore a good thing.

The moral of the story is that forcing change on people breeds resistance. The optimum way to work around this human flaw is through education, engagement and involvement. You educate employees–especially the resisters–to understand the current situation and that there’s a better way; you have them collect the data, help them understand what it means, and challenge them to come up with their own solutions to improving their own work areas. If it’s their idea, they are more likely to put it into practice than if it’s yours.

But whether change is forced or not, when you throw different cultures and languages into the soup, introducing change gets exponentially more challenging. Not only do you have to cope with the normal resistance all people have to change, but you’ve also got hidden culture gaps messing with everyone’s heads.  The logical approach then is to find and tap into common values and motivations that can keep the different cultures “glued” together. The good news is that once common ground is established and the team properly educated, multi-culture workplaces rock with the best of them.

Pulling It All Together

Hope it’s clear by now that the point of my ramblings isn’t about factories and industrial engineering. It’s about applying the broader principles that drive and nurture positive change in any organization.

And to that point, a brief recap:

Improvement starts and ends with structured teams of competent, educated, and motivated employees led by leaders willing to get their hands dirty.

In getting the team to embrace its mission—whether it’s productivity improvement or developing an on-line marketing campaign—it is persuasive and therefore effective to start with the big picture before burdening the troops with details. Context is critical for a shared understanding and eventual buy-in. In my experience, the “deductive” approach has been effective in communicating with cultures around the world.

And while it’s necessary to provide context, ultimately the team has to own the project for any good to come of it. They own it by doing the work, from data collection to analysis to brainstorming through implementation and follow up. The leader’s job is to advise, support and catch folks when they fall. And occasionally roll around in the mud with ’em.

But if you do just one thing right, make sure it’s building solid relationships up, down and across the organization, accomplished by generously sharing knowledge and being humble enough to learn from others, especially the folks on the front lines who are creating value for the organization.

My years as a manufacturing consultant weren’t much fun. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It broadened my understanding of business and management, taught me how to strategically approach improvement, and hooked me up with some quality people who are still friends today.

Thanks to all my great Japanese mentors–even the crazy samurai mentors–it shouldn’t surprise that my management style has a distinct shoyu flavor. And yet, as much as I respect the improvement approach used by these mentors, it has, as my Japanese boss liked to say, “much room for improvement.”

We’ll revisit the “big picture” in a future post, next time from forty-thousand feet. Coming soon.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language

Knowing others is wisdom;  knowing yourself is enlightenment–Lao Tzu

Folks who hear me speak Japanese often marvel at my “knack for foreign languages.” Truth is I don’t have a knack. I’ll admit that I always did okay in English at school and had a decent grasp of grammatical concepts from an early age, so maybe I’m slightly smarter than the average bear when it comes to learning languages. But that doesn’t constitute a knack.

It also doesn’t hurt that I come from a long line of Irish talkers; both my parents were articulate, and raised us to speak standard, grammatically correct American “Midwestern” English. In this sense I’m carrying on the great Sullivan tradition of talking.

The Navy provided the conditions that made it possible to learn Japanese, by sending me to Japan at the tender age of nineteen. My eventual fluency in Japanese was a product of sheer effort backed by a powerful primordial motivation:  I wanted to talk to all the beautiful Japanese ladies (yes all of ’em), most of whom didn’t speak  a lick of English.

I was discharged from the Navy in Japan in 1979. In April 1980 I enrolled in Waseda University’s one-year, intensive Japanese language program. That year at Waseda was a turning point. It was the year I learned to carry on a basic conversation (however clumsily) in Japanese. It was also the year it dawned on me that learning a foreign language didn’t assure effective communication would happen. I learned the hard way that if you don’t understand the values, assumptions, thought process and culture behind the language you’re studying, then it’s better if you don’t speak the language at all.

The idea of distinguishing the spoken word from the concept of “communication” might sound odd, maybe even cryptic to someone with limited experience with other cultures. To simplify the concept let’s use driving a car as an analogy.

We can all agree that a car is essentially a transportation tool to get you from point A to point B. You can learn the mechanics and technique of driving that car — how to start the engine, put it in gear, turn left or right, press the brake to stop, etc. This would be analogous to learning the grammar and vocabulary of a foreign language. Problem is, if you don’t understand the “rules of the road” then how would you know that a red light means “stop”? Or which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on?

Extending the analogy, by learning and using a foreign language without knowledge of the cultural “rules of the road”, your language ability ceases to be a tool, and now becomes a dangerous weapon. And that’s exactly where my development was at that point in time: unbeknownst to me I was “driving the car” on the wrong side of the road, and in doing so, running through red lights and over my Japanese hosts, rather than building meaningful connections as I should have. It took several years of hard-knocks to figure it out.

Again and again I stumbled onto clues that something was missing in my communication repertoire. Wasn’t sure at the time exactly what it was, but I had the foresight to enroll at International Christian University in Mitaka Tokyo, where for the next 4 years I would continue studying the Japanese language, and eventually major in communications with an emphasis on Intercultural studies.

I stumbled onto intercultural communication when I signed up for a class in my sophomore year entitled, appropriately, “Introduction to Intercultural Communication.” Taught by a stodgy American professor, I showed up the first day of class thinking we would be studying the finer points of Japanese culture. Imagine my surprise when the professor announced that we were going to focus on American culture.

I immediately decided to drop the course, but politely waited until the end of class, after which I approached the professor to ask when he’d be offering a class on Japanese culture.

The professor couldn’t answer my question but gave me great advice that stuck with me all these years. He said, “if you really want to learn to communicate with other cultures, you have to understand your own culture first. That way you have a baseline for comparison and are better equipped to deal with any culture.” Then he added, “Unfortunately most people don’t understand their own culture. Focusing on self-understanding is the best place to start.”

I took his advice to heart and didn’t drop the course. And it proved to be a humbling experience, because I realized for the first time that I had been unconsciously projecting my values onto my Japanese hosts since I had arrived in Japan. To quote Rick Perry, “oops.”

Here’s a Zen parable that beautifully sums up the notion of knowing oneself:

Two tadpoles are swimming in a pond. Suddenly one turns into a frog and leaves the pond. Upon the frog’s return to the water, the tadpole sees the frog and asks, “Where did you go?”

“I went to a dry place, ” answers the frog.

“What is ‘dry’?” asks the tadpole.

“Dry is where there is no water,” says the frog.

“And what is ‘water’?” asks the tadpole.

“You don’t know what ‘water’ is?” the frog says in disbelief. “It’s all around you! Can’t you see it?”

The moral of the story: Values so permeate our cultures that we take them for granted; so immersed are we that our values are invisible. Without self-awareness, it’s impossible to connect with others.

In concrete terms I had been assuming that just because I, as an American, valued individualism, freedom, self-expression, equality, logic, and truth, that my Japanese counterparts–and every other culture in the world for that matter–naturally shared these values.

How wrong I was!

This “introduction” to my own culture proved to be a major turning point in my life. But it was more than that. Once the light bulb clicked on my worldview suddenly had a panoramic vantage point. The notion that something as abstract and “invisible” as a cultural value had so much power in connecting (and driving apart) people was an epiphany. And it kindled a passion for cultural anthropology, eventually leading to the profession that I’ve spent the last thirty-plus years practicing.

Learning a foreign language was indeed a game-changer for me. But only because it forced me to look at myself through the filters of another culture and “see” my own values. Unfortunately it took too many head-on collisions to realize I was driving on the wrong side of the road, evidence that maybe, just maybe, I’m not smarter than the average bear?

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012