Tag Archives: multi-cultural workplaces

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