Tag Archives: Tim Sullivan

Aloha in the Aftermath of Iselle

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The Puna district on the East side of Hawaii Island took a direct hit from Tropical Storm Iselle on August 7th. Here’s what every other street in my neighborhood looked like.

DeadEnd

DownAlbezia2

In our case the power was out for five days. Got our internet back a couple days after that.

And we were one of the lucky ones: we were well prepared for the worst-case scenario and, thanks to the fortuitous direction of the winds, we suffered minimal damage.

Unfortunately, not so for all our neighbors. The good news is that no one died from the storm, truly amazing in light of the devastation, especially if you see what happened in Kapoho.

But even dire situations have an upside. Witnessing so many acts of kindness in our community from friends, neighbors and complete strangers has been uplifting and inspiring. For whatever reason, disasters seem to bring out the best in people. In our case, on two different days two different strangers showed up at our front gate with free ice. We didn’t need it but their kindness and selflessness made us feel wonderful. (On both occasions we humbly accepted the ice then paid it forward by sharing with our elderly Japanese neighbors.)

Our Kona friends and island neighbors also pitched in. A shout out to Hawaiian Airlines for doing their part in flying over pallets of bottled water donated by Hawaiian Isles Water Company. (Mahalo HIWC!) Another shout out to Kona’s Liz Heiman for rallying her neighbors around Puna in a time of need. Also special thanks to Mike Sato (Reptillian Tank) and friends who organized Ride the Breaks and solicited donations for Puna. And last but not least, a heartfelt mahalo to local comedian Augie T who showed up at Maku’u farmer’s market to lift people’s spirits and raise awareness for the cause.

I’d be remiss not to mention all the hardworking folks at HELCO who made things happen very quickly. I’ve never been a big fan, but have to give them their props on this one: they stepped up their game working late into the night under tough conditions, even during heavy downpours. Very impressive how quickly they restored our power, so a big mahalo from all of us.

HELCO

Thanks to lots of hardworking folks our personal situation is now stable here in Pahoa. But lots of other folks are still without water and electricity. Help from both inside and outside is still needed and much appreciated.

It will take time for Puna to recover. But our community has pulled together and we’re stronger for it. Didn’t realize just how tight-knit we could be until this happened, the proverbial blessing disguised as a disaster.

In light of the massive scale of devastation, Puna’s pace of recovery is much faster than anyone had anticipated (although admittedly the folks in remote and devastated Kapoho might beg to differ–my heart goes out to all of them).

I can only speak for myself, but the aloha around me continues to inspire. Didn’t think it was possible, but I love this place even more than I did before. So proud and thankful to be part of this community.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Musical Chairs on a Rush-Hour Train: Connecting Cultures Through Storytelling

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“If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”

–Jonathan Gottschall

I come from a family of storytellers—parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them—it’s in our Irish blood. My favorite childhood story was dad’s annual Christmas-Eve yarn about how our grandfather saved the life of Santa Claus. Dad’s narrative had all the classic elements of a compelling story: good guy, bad guy, problem, climax, and resolution.

The good guy of course was grandpa. The bad guy was grandpa’s crazy next-door neighbor Seamus O’Toole who, one fateful Christmas morning, took umbrage with Santa “breaking into his house.” As grandpa was getting home from Midnight Mass he heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from inside his neighbor’s house. He dashed in only to find Seamus choking poor Santa! Grandpa proceeded to pull him off Santa and a fight ensued. Of course our hero prevailed, Seamus was subdued, and when Santa regained his wits he was so appreciative that he promised “from now on forever and ever, I will always bring presents to the children in the Sullivan family!” And as sure as the sun rises, the next morning we’d wake up with lots of presents under the Christmas tree, proof that dad was telling the truth.

How can anyone not love such a convoluted load of blarney? We ate it up.

This load of blarney is brought to you by Culture, where value lessons get wrapped in wonderful stories. The lessons of dad’s Santa story were unspoken but crystal clear: help people in need, be on the side of good, take action when you must, be proud of your pedigree.

This is the beauty of story: the good ones stick in your head right along with their accompanying value lessons, just as the Santa story is emblazoned in my memory fifty years later.

Long before humans were writing books, stories were told and passed down from generation to generation orally. Folks gathered around the hearth with family, friends, and neighbors, and listened to elders, shamans and raconteurs lay down their rap. Stories were about religion, entertainment, social interaction, and education. Today we’ll focus on the educational dimension of stories, specifically the role of stories in the cross-cultural field. First some background for context.

What’s In a Story?

Psychologist Keith Oatley calls stories “the flight simulators of human social life.” Jonathan Gottschall explains why in his book The Storytelling Animal:

…we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kind of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

The relevance of storytelling to my situation is that one of life’s most pressing problems, indeed something “crucial to our success as a species,” is the challenge humans face connecting with other cultures. And as fate would have it, this is what I do for a living.

So many ways to skin the cross-cultural cat, but it makes good sense to use stories—both real and fictitious—in imparting cross-cultural knowledge and skills to anyone with the will to learn. Real stories for lecture, fiction for role play if it works. Whatever the context and application, stories rock it in any lecture or workshop.

And what does every story have? Conflict of course. Remember all those Grimm tales we were told as kids? Gottschall itemizes the carnage for us:

…children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds)…”

If, as author Charles Baxter says, Hell is indeed “story-friendly,” then so it goes for cultures that collide. If you’re paying attention you won’t need fiction, as the cross-culture reality provides ample conflict, problems, humor, even horror. And whatever the outcome of any cross-cultural encounter, you’ve always got your story as a takeaway.

So why didn’t my anthropology teachers tell stories? Or was I not listening? All I remember are models, theories, graphs, charts, psychological references and lots of jargon to obfuscate simple human interactions. When stories were told they were stripped down and clinical in nature. It was painful to learn that way, and as a teacher I never wanted to subject others to that pain. Storytelling mitigates the pain.

Here’s a story I might tell in my seminars.

Musical Chairs

Shortly after arriving in Japan some thirty-seven years ago I was blown away by the kindness, attentiveness and hospitality of the Japanese. They were so gracious, so generous, sharing their food and drink and knowledge, even inviting me into their homes where they treated me like royalty. And I carried this gentle, caring image of the Japanese in my head until precisely the first time I boarded a rush-hour train in Tokyo.

The memory is still vivid. I was standing in line on the platform waiting for the Odakyu train to dead-end at Shinjuku station. The train eased its way in and stopped just short of the bumper. The doors remained closed on our side of the train, but slid open on the other side for the incoming passengers to file out. (And no, you’re not allowed to enter the open doors on the other side, you’ll get scolded if you try–but don’t ask how I know that.)

So there I was, standing quietly in line, thinking how much I loved the gentle, caring, hospitable Japanese people, when suddenly the doors on our side of the train opened and all hell broke loose. Little old ladies and pregnant women were shoved aside as blue-suited men, high-heeled office ladies and rabid students battled for seats. It was musical chairs played by people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and my mind was completely blown. I would soon learn that this wasn’t an aberration, as the same scenario played itself out again and again on rush-hour trains all over Tokyo everyday.

And this seeming contradiction in Japanese behavior dogged me. Were my Japanese hosts gentle, polite and attentive? Or cold-hearted scrooges who would deny a little old lady a seat on the train?

Fast forward several years when, in a flash of enlightenment, it all started making sense. I was a college student on my way home from campus, and had just boarded the very same Odakyu train in Shinjuku station. The same scenario unfolded: doors open, hell breaks loose, musical chairs, watch out grandma!

As a Westerner I’m not culturally programmed to fight for a seat under these conditions. So I slid into my favorite spot near the rear door, where I could lean against the train bulkhead, the perfect place to practice writing Japanese kanji on my scratch pad.

The moment of enlightenment hit when I happened to look up and see a blue-suited Japanese salaryman who had been particularly aggressive at getting his seat, sitting against the window reading the newspaper. As he turned the page he glanced up, and immediately realized that he knew the man standing in front of him, also a blue-suited salaryman. It was obvious there was a connection because the seated man immediately offered his seat to the standing man, insisting he take it. The standing man declined. The seated man, now in a half-sitting-half-bowing position, insisted again. The exchange continued–insist, decline, insist, decline, and lasted just long enough for me to consider sliding into the man’s seat myself. (Only in my imagination.) In the end, the half-seated man apologized for keeping his seat, sat back down, and harmony was restored to the universe.

And that’s when it hit me. The seated man had just out-dueled a little old lady for his seat, and now he was offering it to someone who needed it the least, a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. The more I thought about why this had just happened, the more I realized how rich the spectacle was in cultural meaning.

Cultural Lessons from the Rush Hour Train

It’s generally accepted in Japan that strangers on a train fight for seats, and everyone implicitly agrees on the rules so aggressive behavior is tolerated, even encouraged. Fair enough. But as soon as an acquaintance, friend or family member steps into the picture, inner-group rules kick in.

The sudden transformation of behavior that took place before my eyes on the train that fateful day was a story that stuck in my head: the man went from aggressive rugby brute to humble Confucian gentleman in mere seconds. This is a great example of what Takie Sugiyama Lebra refers to as “situation ethics,” not unusual in Confucian cultures where one’s duties and obligations are dictated by one’s situation in relation to others. Hence, universal rules of behavior don’t apply, and equal treatment is promised to no one. It also points to the importance of “inner versus outer” group behavior in Japan. Outside the confines of one’s inner group, rules for human interactions are minimal; but inside the group it’s a pressure cooker with strict protocol that’s heavy on duty and obligation.

In contrast Western culture has a tradition of absolute rules that apply to everyone equally, in principle if not in reality. And it makes perfect sense. Western culture is built on a Christian tradition that teaches we are all equal and under the moral scrutiny of an omnipotent, omnipresent God who watches us twenty-four-seven. That’s some heavy pressure on the individual when you think about it.

Applying this assumption to the rush hour train, God (and by logical extension, Western culture) expects strong, healthy young people to offer their seats to all pregnant ladies, the elderly, and the less fortunate–whether or not a relationship exists–because Christian morality is framed in universal laws not by “who you know.”

Many Westerners who claim no religion also behave according to universal principles. Whether they realize it our not, their behavior is rooted in these kinds of universal concepts set forth long ago in the Old Testament.

I’d be remiss not to mention here that it’s unfair to paint the Japanese as a culture that denies the elderly seats on a train. “Silver Seats” designated specifically for senior citizens are provided in each train car, although they surely need to be expanded to accommodate Japan’s growing senior-citizen demographic. I’ve also seen compassionate Japanese people offer their seats to the elderly. But looking back it still surprises me (as an outsider) how often it didn’t happen.

And as one digs deeper into the concept of situation ethics, there’s clearly more to teach on the impact of Confucianism on Japanese culture, including the concept of filial piety and the “rule-of man-over-rule-of-law” mentality that puts family and friends even before a government-issued edict.

The point of telling my musical chairs’ story is to illustrate how a story can give meaning and context to a discussion as abstract as ethics and behavior. Stories breathe life into abstractions by connecting them to the real world. In concrete terms the story above suggests how situation ethics might manifest in real life, and invites reflection on how one might adapt to that reality. Discussions can be interesting.

The versatility and power of stories make them applicable to any cross-cultural abstraction imaginable, from collectivism to power distance to empiricism to high and low context cultures. So many stories to tell.

Rockin’ It with Stories

My favorite teachers growing up were storytellers. They engaged me, entertained me, and wove in lessons that stayed with me. But just as important as the knowledge they imparted, their passion and storytelling style inspired me to seek out knowledge on my own. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Sadly we don’t have enough storytellers in the educational field today, and I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the Aristotelian structure we imposed on our learning institutions? Did we suck the joy out of learning to make it rational and scientific?

Nor do we have enough storytellers in the cross-cultural field and it’s a shame. So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them all, so many people who could use the knowledge. So I tell stories. And invite others to share their stories too.

For a related article, check out A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

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 littany 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 elicit 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 issue approval 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.

Mahalo!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

One Minute Insight: The Art of Japanese Kikubari Service

What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!

One-Minute Insight: Why Bilingual Brains Rock!

All parents should know this. Cutting edge research on bilingual children by Dr. Ellen Bialystok of York University:

The Secret to Managing Your Japanese Boss

Okay, there’s no secret. But over the years I picked up some techniques–some I learned from my father, others from Japanese colleagues–to avoid being micromanaged by a Japanese boss. These are the most important:

“Hear 1 Do 10”

My very first Japanese boss told me this the first day of work, meaning he expected me to be observant, read between the lines, process the information around me, then take initiative without specifically being told what to do. Thankfully it’s exactly how my father raised me; I still remember dad telling me that if I ever ran out of work that I shouldn’t wait for instructions; that I should pick up a broom, or find something else constructive to do without being told. This foundation made it easy for me to adapt to the Japanese expectation that employees take initiative.

HORENSO

The other key concept is what Japanese managers call “HORENSO,” an acronym, made up of three Japanese words 「報告」(hokoku), 「連絡」(renraku), and 「相談」(sodan). The acronym literally means “report-contact-consult”, but it’s pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “spinach” (“horenso“), making it easy to remember.

Here’s an easy way to understand this concept: your boss tells you to do “1”; you take initiative and do 1, 2, 3. Then you go back to your boss to show him what you did. He pulls out his red pen and tells you everything you did wrong (usually without any praise); you in turn fix your “mistakes,” then proceed to do 4, 5, 6. Repeat the drill with Japanese boss and red pen. After fixing the red marks on 4, 5, 6 you proceed to 10, then once again repeat drill with boss and red pen.

Some of my American compatriots think HORENSO is “micromanagement,” but it’s actually the antidote to micromanagement. (Trust me, I’ve broken in a few Japanese bosses in my day.) Horenso is absolutely the best way to manage your Japanese boss. Rather than waiting for him to come breathe down your neck, you beat him to the punch by going to him first.

HORENSO has also been the most effective technique for me in building trust with previous Japanese bosses and colleagues. Once that trust is established, all my Japanese bosses have backed off and given me breathing room. And we lived happily ever after…most of the time.

Also related is the concept of kikubari, the idea of “distributing one’s ‘spirit”, and proactively taking action through the fine Japanese art of anticipation. The best example is the dangerous Japanese beer-pouring ritual where each person at the table stays on the lookout for half-empty glasses to fill, then takes initiative to pour without being requested to do so. An uninitiated (and very drunk) American friend once quipped in slurred tones, “I had 53 half glasses of beer!”

Nemawashi and Chosei-yaku

When Japanese set out to introduce change into their organizations–whether it be a single decision or a series of decisions directed at solving a problem–they meet informally with numerous people throughout the organization to ask for help in defining the problem. Indeed many of these meetings happen one-on-one, sometimes outside of work at social functions. This is the Japanese way of laying the groundwork for change, a process they call nemawashi.

For some background, the word nemawashi is a gardening term that roughly translates to, “digging around the roots.” The actual nemawashi process happens when a Japanese gardener undertakes the delicate task of transplanting a tree or plant from one part of the garden to another. If the gardener simply rips out the plant and buries it in a new location, it dies of shock. To avoid this he instead “digs around the roots,” keeping the surrounding soil loosened up for the appropriate period of time. It’s the gardener’s way of giving the plant a “heads-up” that change is coming.

Similarly when change becomes necessary in the workplace, nemawashi is analogous to pre-selling a decision or initiative through consultations with affected departments. And the act of moving the tree to its new location in the garden would be analogous to implementing any given decision in the workplace. Nemawashi is a useful analogy to describe how Japanese take time upfront to lay the groundwork, so quick and effective implementation is possible.

The nemawashi process is absolutely critical to introducing change in a Japanese organization, but it also works in Western organizations if done properly. At a seminar I administered a few years ago to a group of Japanese managers, one of them remarked that the word nemawashi had an underhanded nuance. It was the first time a Japanese participant had expressed this sentiment in all the years I’ve been consulting. It piqued my interest so I did a survey and found that not all Japanese share his opinion. However most agreed that “chosei” is a more palatable expression.

Explaining the chosei process is a dissertation in itself. Suffice it to say that the concept of “chosei-yaku” (Japanese-style, cross-functional coordinator) is missing in the West’s highly compartmentalized way of organizing work. (For more on the chosei process check out The Hunter and the Fisherman: Glimpses of Culture Through Decision-Making & The Hunter and the Fisherman II: A Zen Master’s Guide to Problem-Solving)

Lastly, it helps to understand why the Japanese and Western approaches are so different. The West has the legacy of the Greek philosophers who, rightly or wrongly, put “truth” at the top of the hierarchy of values. And to get to the truth they invented the dialectic, what most folks call “debating” or sometimes “arguing”. This legacy lingers today: when Western managers go to a meeting to openly debate the issues they are trying to get to the “truth”. Whether they realize it or not, the ghost of Socrates lurks quietly in the background.

In Japan the corresponding value is harmony, where the ghost of Confucius lingers. It’s not that the Japanese don’t like the truth, but when truth and harmony collide, often the truth gets swept under the rug to preserve harmony. So how to avoid harmony-shattering confrontation? Why you negotiate behind the scenes (nemawashi/chosei) so as to avoid confrontation at the meeting! The better you learn to conduct chosei, the more effective you’ll be in managing your boss and doing your job.

A quick disclaimer before signing off: when humans are involved there will always be a gap between the cultural ideal and the cultural reality. Just because Westerners value the truth doesn’t mean we always tell the truth; it’s simply an ideal that we aspire to uphold. Similarly, just because the Japanese value harmony doesn’t mean they are harmonious all the time. When true harmony cannot be achieved in Japan, fake harmony is the next best option.

 Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012