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Updated: 19 Jul 2017

Being Culturally Intelligent



There are limits to culture learning - it can distort or boomerang if maladaptive.Decide on the right nuance of culturally appropriate behavior.

by Dr. Bob March


Deciding on the right nuance of culturally appropriate behavior in Japan is not easy. I used to work with Colorado-born Fred Hevers in Tokyo. He spoke astonishingly fluent Japanese, much better than mine. Impertinent though it was of me, I once suggested to him that he was far too polite, when he spoke to many Japanese. He took it well, and seemed to ponder it.

We both moved on to other jobs and when we next met five years later, he was manning a stand at a Tokyo industry fair, for a Japanese company he had invested in. He was attending to some Japanese clients at the stand. Fred explained the product in his elegant Japanese. It was very impressive for a Westerner, save for the fact that it was – in my opinion, just as I remembered – far too polite and humble. Even listening, made me feel uncomfortable. I watched the Japanese clients while Fred spoke. It was soon clear to me that they were beginning to show – subtly, non-verbally – disdain and contempt. When they were to leave the stand, Fred was effusive to the nth degree, neatly bundling up brochures and specifications, handing them over ceremoniously, and bowing deeply, again and again, as they left the stand.

I followed them a little way. Sure enough, once out of range, they expressed open contempt and scorn for Fred. Why? Putting myself in their shoes, the reason surely was that they saw Fred behaving as a mock-Japanese, a phony. The deep bows were, I thought, the last straw that may have strengthened any prejudices these Japanese held, about Americans as insincere.

Fred was a good example of the American (or Australian) gone native. His case showed that there are limits to culture learning – it can distort or boomerang maladaptively. Fred needed more feedback of the kind I had offered him five years earlier, although I had only got a glimpse then of his counter-productive communication style.

Very likely, when he behaved in his “posh” Japanese manner, he was imitating some high-class Japanese gentleman he had once seen in an extremely formal and public situation A situation where such behavior would have been acceptable and not appear ludicrous. Fred had never learnt this contextual or situational limit. He either truly believed such behavior appropriate in the product stand environment, or was afraid to try any other model. Perhaps fearing he would make even bigger social mistakes. Certainly, he would have known that he needed to be both polite and friendly, in order to narrow the cultural distance between the clients and himself. Instead of the big formal bows, a friendly nod of the head would have been sufficient. Regrettably, he decided to stick with what he did exceedingly well, even if some Japanese did, not so secretly, sneer at him.

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