Cultural Spectacles

Cultural conditioning, taken care of extremely well by our parents, peers, and teachers, tells us that we are “normal.” Surrounded as we grow up by the norms of our own society, we acquire a view of the world that will be hard to change after puberty. As we venture abroad, we see that Russians, Japanese, and Spaniards do not live as we do. Some things that we hold dear, they do not seem to care about. On the other hand, they can appear obsessed by matters we consider of little importance. In this sense we think they are “abnormal.”

What happens is that we see the world, and others in it, through a kind of filter that we might describe as cultural spectacles. Our own particular bias distorts our opinion of others, so that we may not see them as they really are. Certainly we do not see them as they see themselves. Energetic, speed-conscious Americans tend to see most other nationalities as lacking in urgency, commitment, and drive. Finns find Spaniards and Italians irremediably talkative and scatterbrained. These Latins, looking at Finns through their own spectacles, see them as cold, withdrawn, and slow-witted.

We are rarely aware of how others see us. It would certainly help if we could. An American wishing to relate to a Mexican would be greatly helped by being able to visualize a Mexican’s perception of him or her (Yanqui) and thereby eliminate in advance some of the characteristics Mexicans find undesirable about their northern neighbors.

Few nations share a cultural heritage in terms of historical contact and traditions as close as that between England and France. The English and the French should understand each other well by now (after all, England has been an Anglo-Norman country since 1066!). They should be the greatest of friends. In fact they find it hard to tolerate each other and are quick to indulge in biting criticism. This is because, though close neighbors, they belong to different cultural categories and see each other through uncalibrated pairs of spectacles of different tints.

The following assessments—English and French, Germans and Italians, and Americans and Japanese—have been compiled by people of the corresponding nationalities. Judgments vary to such an extent that we might think we are not looking at the same people!

The English and the French

The English through English Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The English are a calm, reasonable people who believe in fair play, good manners, old traditions, the monarchy, cricket, soccer, rugby, tennis, and the Church of England. Fond of dogs, cats, horses, sheepdog trials, queuing, and garden parties, we are casual and laid-back, can laugh at ourselves, and are occasionally eccentric. We support underdogs and have kind hearts that are concealed by a reluctance to appear emotional. We are reliable in a crisis, maintaining a “stiff upper lip.” We admire reserve and conservatism and are occasionally vague. We often think laterally and are frequently inventive.

Communication. When communicating with others, the golden rule is “Do not rock the boat.” Boasting is taboo; understatement and modesty show good form. Being too frank or brutally honest is not always appropriate. Humor, stalling, even a sprinkling of white lies emphasize diplomacy at the expense of truth. Coded speech is a good way to convey feelings without revealing criticism, anger, disappointment, or even approval too directly. We are good listeners and like to offer useful feedback and debate.

Social and Business Behavior. The English invented Good Manners, which peaked during the reign of Queen Victoria. We avoid voicing strong opinions and prefer to influence events through behind-the-scenes connections.

Initial formality at business meetings soon gives way to informality and first names. Humor and storytelling are necessary ingredients in business. As managers we are diplomatic, tactful, laid-back, casual, reasonable, helpful, willing to compromise, and inventive. We conduct business with grace, style, wit, eloquence, and self-possession. We regard meetings as occasions to seek agreement rather than to issue instructions.

Other. Punctuality is admired, but one needn’t arrive on the dot. Distance of comfort is 1.2 meters. The continuing polarization of society constitutes an English “cultural black hole” (see chapter 6).

How to Empathize and Motivate. Speak with modesty, reserve, and discretion. Be as humorous as possible but avoid open sentiment. Don’t pry. Be casual. Avoid intensity of feeling and expression.

The English through French Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The English are a rather closed, undemonstrative lot who believe they have a monopoly on impartiality and good manners. They are somewhat old-fashioned and cling to old traditions like the monarchy, cricket, croquet, country dancing, and “five o’clock tea.” They are slow to modernize and in the last twenty years have fallen behind the French in technology. They are reluctant members of the European Union and may one day be thrown out. Their famous quality of reserve often leads them to be obtuse in international exchanges. They are obstinate and often very cool with Latins in general, the French in particular. They have shared a lot of history with France, but they don’t seem to have learned much from it. They lack panache.

Communication. Unlike the French, who are direct and precise communicators, the English are woolly, unclear, and often devious. They think slowly and reply to our questions with phrases such as “I’ll have to think about it,” “It’s a moot point,” or “I’m not quite with you on that one.” They rarely say what they mean (and often say the opposite of what they mean). They are condescending toward French people and tell us funny stories to dis- tract us. They avoid precision or commitment.

Social and Business Behavior. The English are much less formal than we French, often wanting to use first names much earlier than we do. They become familiar too soon and lack respect for our position. They think they dress well, but we know better. They pride themselves on their table manners but hold a fork the wrong way up and think we are uncivilized when we (sensibly) wipe gravy off a plate with a piece of bread.

They want to follow agendas strictly and dislike discussing important points that we want to revisit. They say things like “That was settled earlier.” They like to appear laid-back during business meetings but often fail to give adequate attention to important matters. They pretend business is a kind of game that can be won by excelling at humor. They are always trying to pin us down (“Could we please write down what we have agreed upon?”) when we obviously wish to discuss vital issues further.

Other. The British stand well away from interlocutors and seem uncomfortable when Latins get close to them. They shake hands less than we do. They like frequent “tea breaks.”

How to Empathize and Motivate. We have to flatter their position and refer to the British Empire as if it still existed. We have to learn English and use it to do business with them. They can always be motivated by money. They do not always believe what we say but look at what we do. We pretend they are great humorists, though they are not as witty as we are. We make a fuss over their animals—and for this they are grateful.

The French through French Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. A close study of European history during the second millennium reveals that France was the continent’s most influential power, setting the norms for democracy, justice, government and legal systems, military strategy, philosophy, science, agriculture, viniculture, and haute cuisine.

Clear-sighted, perceptive thinkers, we French have an unrivaled historical perspective. Our sense of intellectual superiority, combined with our moral and didactic authority, gives us a clear mission—that of preserving the age-long values and philosophies that Europe cherishes. “La mission de la France, c’est civiliser l’Europe,” proclaimed Andr Malraux (former Minister of Culture).

The French excel in Cartesian logic, have quick minds, and would rather be right than popular. Individualistic and opportunistic, we nevertheless show great compassion for the weak and underprivileged, and we pride ourselves on our inherent humanity.

Communication. The French communicate clearly and precisely; the clinical nature of the French language facilitates this. Our style of speaking is personal, often emotional, but essentially rational. We tend to be extroverts. Discussion is an intellectual exercise during which problems and issues are analyzed from all perspectives. Firmness is combined with politeness.

Social and Business Behavior. The French are among the most formal of Europeans, and proper respect must be accorded to age and rank. We entertain lavishly with the best food and wine in the world at our disposal. Politics is our favorite discussion topic, and conversation is regarded as an art. Lunches and dinners can be extremely lengthy, accompanied by animated discussion.

Our businesspeople arrive at meetings well dressed, well prepared, and with clear goals. They are great orators and see no reason to compromise or fudge issues if their logic has not been defeated. They are strong on vision and imagination; during brainstorming sessions, they usually contribute more ideas than anyone else. They have long-term objectives and they try to establish personal relationships. Negotiation is not a quick procedure. Although wit and humor form a part of the discussion, flippancy is frowned upon. French managers consider not only the business at hand (e.g., investment and profit) but remain aware of their company’s standing in the framework of French society and of their own personal status in the organic whole.

Other. We are often seen as anti-Anglo-Saxon in general and anti-American in particular. But we would not be human if we did not resent the rise of the British after the fall of Napoleon, the decline of the French language as a world tongue, the ubiquitous use of English in international affairs, and most of all, the pernicious Americanization of large parts of the world, including once- French-dominated Europe and even French culture itself.

How to Empathize and Motivate. We French like frequent reference to France, her history, and her many achievements. We like understanding and even closeness, once initial formality and distrust have been dispelled by reliable behavior. Money is less important than pride and social position are. We admire people who speak French well.

The French through English Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The French live in a world of their own, the center of which is France, and they attach little importance to the opinions of other nations, which they see as intellectually inferior. They see themselves as the natural leaders of Europe and claim to have pioneered or invented virtually everything, including tennis, which, as everyone knows, started in England. They admit that we once had an empire covering fifteen million square miles, but they see us now as a rather small, foggy island lying off the French coast. We see the French as an obstinate, opinionated people, always the last to sign agreements at such international gatherings as the GATT meetings. They make poor team members and are quick to attack others. Irrevocably chauvinistic, they know little about other cultures and believe it is their mission to civilize the rest of us. They are obsessed by theories and often ignore facts that might contradict them. Shining French ideas often blind them to the truth. They are irremediably cynical and distrust Anglo-Saxons most of all.

Communication. The French talk too much and irritate us with their excessive body language such as constant shrugging of the shoulders and frequent pouting. They are so long-winded that it is often difficult to get a word in. They, on the other hand, show no hesitation in interrupting us, and they often talk over us while we are saying our piece. They claim that they can talk and listen to what we say at the same time. We believe them. Our problem with the French is that although they are overly loquacious, they adhere strictly to logic, so it is difficult for us to win an argument. The best policy is to agree with them early on, as this stops them from talking. They are poor listeners, being convinced that a Brit can tell them nothing they don’t know already. When they pin us to the wall, we tell them funny stories, which confuses them and upsets their concentration. Parables are best, as they dare not admit they have not grasped the point.

Social and Business Behavior. The French are well known for their rich cuisine and lavish entertaining. Lunches are, in our opinion, too long, and after three or four glasses of wine, it is difficult to get anything done in the afternoon. Dinners are even longer; they serve many dishes separately, whereas we often put everything on the table at one time. They have some funny manners, too, like tearing their bread up and wiping their plates with it. They eat so much at night they are unable to face a decent breakfast. They describe English bacon as “burning pig meat.” We have to admit, however, that they are excellent hosts.

A business meeting with the French can be a trying affair. They follow the agenda at first but soon depart from it and want to revisit points we think have already been settled. They diverge constantly in all directions and will introduce subjects that are not on the agenda at all! They can even make a new platform out of these topics so that the whole nature and thrust of the negotiation can change completely. Their discussion is so roundabout and prolonged that we get drowned in words and often wind up completely lost. English negotiators frequently have to say, at about half past four in the afternoon, “Could we please write down the points we have agreed upon?”

Meetings scheduled for three to four hours often last until evening, or indeed continue the following day. The French refuse to do business piecemeal and will not agree to any particular items until the whole thing has been settled. They look for “all-embracing solutions,” which can be very difficult to reach.

Other. The French, along with the Spanish, are the worst linguists in Europe. We are not good either, but at least English is the international language.

How to Empathize and Motivate. One has to flatter the French and show exaggerated respect for their opinions. They don’t mind fierce debate, but they want to win the argument. A good tactic is to let them win it but repackage afterward. They like your showing an interest in their family—this is another way you can “defuse” them. Use your schoolboy French as much as possible—it amuses them. Praise French cheeses.

The Germans and the Italians

Germans through German Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The Germans are the most honest, straightforward, and reliable people on earth. We believe in scientific rather than contextual truth and conduct our private and professional lives on this basis. We have great respect for facts and figures, the law, property, and rank. Our standards of cleanliness, orderliness, and punctuality are beyond reproach; our work ethic and efficiency are surpassed by none. We Germans stand by our commitments and keep our word. Concepts such as fidelity, loyalty, and honor are very much alive in modern Germany.

Communication. The German communication style is serious, frank, and open. Rarely are we devious; we prefer to disagree openly rather than simulate compliance. We are not slow to criticize because we believe that constructive criticism is helpful and beneficial. Discussion begins formally, without much small talk, which we think is a waste of time. Facts are important, and often we prefer to write things down to avoid multiple interpretations of what was said. Instructions should be given clearly—repeated when necessary. We avoid exaggerated or boastful statements and are unimpressed by flashy television advertising or clever slogans. With strangers, we don’t smile a lot and are not overly friendly, but we’re sincere. We Germans are among the world’s best listeners; we rarely interrupt.

Social and Business Behavior. Germans generally dress well and are neat and clean in appearance. We prefer new clothes to old clothes and spend a good proportion of our budget on clothing. We are quite formal on first meeting; we shake hands more frequently than Anglo-Saxons do. A distance of a full 1.2 meters from other people makes us feel at ease, and we respect privacy more than most people do. It is advisable to knock on a person’s door before entering, and please don’t ask us too many personal questions. We do not use first names in the initial stages of a relationship, preferring to show respect and use proper titles.

Meetings begin formally, titles are used, visiting cards are exchanged, and seating may be hierarchical. We believe successful business is built on reliable procedures and processes, and we work hard to develop these and adhere to them. Managers usually combine a good education with solid experience and are expected to give subordinates (and partners) the benefit of their expertise. We come to meetings well prepared and often go into great detail. We try always to be logical, and our strong points are quality, on-time delivery dates, and competitive prices; we look for these qualities in others.

Other. We believe in true, deep friendships. A German friend- ship is a good investment. Contrary to popular belief, we admire intellectuals more than we do military or business leaders.

How to Empathize and Motivate. One should respect the German primary values of honesty, efficiency, punctuality, and Ordnung. We look for common ground with people, and when we find it, we love sharing. Put as much as possible in writing and don’t leave things unfinished. Above all keep your word and deliver what you have promised.

Germans through Italian Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The Germans are always telling us how honest and reliable they are; we suspect they are comparing themselves with us. They strive to lead good, orderly lives and respect the law so much they won’t even cross an empty road at midnight if the light is red. They also pay their taxes regularly, keep only one set of books and are quite ungenerous in giving little presents to officials. They all seem to want to get into Heaven rather badly, but we aren’t sure we want to get into a German Heaven!

Communication. German communication style is so frank and open that we know the whole story in five minutes and wonder how we can begin to negotiate or even make interesting conversation. If we start to show a little artistic creativity with their cold facts and figures, they attack our logic and criticize us mercilessly. If we pretend to be upset, they say they are only trying to help us. Humor doesn’t help either—they don’t think our jokes are funny, and they won’t tell any while doing business. We must admit they are truthful, sensible people, but they come across as a bit heavy at times.

Social and Business Behavior. Germans spend a lot of money on new clothes, but we would not go so far as to say they are well dressed. They go in for a boring charcoal grey rather a lot—it’s like a uniform for executives. When we show up in tastefully designed sports jackets, they ask us if we have just arrived back from holiday. On introducing themselves, they shake hands snappily in military fashion. Mentally, they’ve got to be clicking their heels. They don’t smile much initially (in Germany smiling is only for friends); we try hard to be their friends, but if we try too hard, they get suspicious.

They are very formal at business meetings and use titles a lot. Most of them are “Doktors.” You can always tell who the delegation leader is because the others always glance at him before they say anything they think is important. Our bosses are autocratic, too, but in our case we pretend not to be. Germans expect us to arrive on time at their meetings and come fifteen minutes early to ours, before we are ready. Agendas, schedules, timetables, and contracts are all holy documents in their eyes. We like to ad-lib a lot at meetings, and they try to write down everything we say, but after a while, they give up.

Other. Germans seem to indulge in a lot of soul-searching and worry about whether they are leading good lives or not. We think they are, but they are not sure about us.

How to Empathize and Motivate. Although the Germans criticize us, we are not offended because we know that nobody is perfect. We usually agree to everything they say; we can always modify things in due course. We share the dream of a United Europe with them, and we don’t challenge their leadership, as the French do.

Italians through Italian Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. We Italians are charming, intelligent people to whom Europe owes a great cultural debt. Our Roman forebears built Europe’s greatest empire, yet in spite of our outstanding achievements in the fields of art, architecture, military history, and modern industry, we remain among the least chauvinistic of peoples, exhibiting a national modesty rivaled in Europe only by the Finns. We aren’t touchy (like the French or Spaniards), and we accept criticism with both grace and good humor.

Essentially gregarious and people-oriented, we combine ready friendliness with unfailing courtesy. Quick of mind, we are witty and fun; we also seek style and form and beauty. Less impressed than most by governments or the Church, our first loyalty is to family, then group or clan. Join the group and we will be your most reliable ally through thick and thin.

Communication. Eloquently loquacious, Italians are the world’s best communicators, combining charisma and exuberance with ultrakeen perceptiveness and flexibility. We are winningly persuasive without being aggressive in argument. Although always wanting to speak, we are attentive listeners, and while you talk, we evaluate your personality and formulate our reply. Our goal is to try to construct a relationship based on what you say and how you say it. We rarely criticize.

Social and Business Behavior. We Italians are invariably courteous and considerate and are well mannered by any standards. We show great compassion to people in difficulties and will go to great lengths to help people who have gained our trust. We are less private than many nationalities and will share details of our personal lives, exchange photographs, borrow and lend our belongings freely, are relaxed about time, and show great flexibility concerning appointments and commitments.

This flexibility allows us to do business in a special way not always properly understood by others. To our way of thinking, bad or useless rules and regulations can be circumvented without actually being broken. There are many grey areas where shortcuts are, in our eyes, a matter of common sense. Closer to reality than most, we are not bound by ideals. We will gather you into our “conspiracy” and share the benefits with you, if you accept. We are excellent negotiators—patient and accommodating. We are always willing to rediscuss tricky agenda points; we dislike silences. Two or three conversations can be conducted simultaneously—one does things faster that way. Italy is, by the way, the sixth-ranking industrial nation in the world (in GDP).

Other. We are among the most tactile of peoples. We also use our eyes a lot. We like being friendly. Why not?

How to Empathize and Motivate. Be understanding and, above all, flexible, especially about time. Rome was not built in a day.

Italians through German Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. Italians seem to be among the most disorganized of Europeans, with a multitude of political parties and changing governments every few months. Prime ministers and other leaders are in and out of power as if they were in a revolving door. Even failed and tainted politicians are reelected regularly and are often simultaneously in court on corruption charges. More than one ex–prime minister has been linked convincingly with the Mafia (often seen as the best-organized political force in the country). Northern Italians are so fed up with the chaotic and clan-ridden south, they have formed a party whose aim it is to split the country in two. Italians seem to have little respect for Parliament, government, law, or the Church, remaining loyal only to their own families and the clique to which every Italian male belongs. Their standards of probity and commitment fall far short of our own, and though they rank as the world’s sixth industrial nation, we have no idea how they managed it.

Communication. We Germans are capable of conversing and analyzing things at great length, but we are taciturn compared with the Italians. We argue in a fairly straight line, but they go around in circles—ever-widening ones. The problem is that at the end we are not at all sure what they have said or in which direction they are heading. We usually make the agenda for meetings, but they avoid it conscientiously. When they make an agenda, it reads like a short story.

Social and Business Behavior. Italians set great store by their charm and charisma and think they can pull the wool over German eyes with their tactics. They are pleasant enough characters and confide in us greatly, telling us all about their families, their professional and social lives, where they were educated, where they go for their holidays, and so on. They don’t realize that we do not want to know all these personal details—their hopes, aspirations, disappointments, and so on. It is none of our business. They want to get too close to us too quickly—and not only spiritually, but physically, too; they have little hesitation about touching us, even hugging and sometimes kissing us after only a short acquaintance! Who do they think we are—pets? However, we must admit their general manners are better than ours, and they never seem to be insulted. Although we are often very dry and ironic with them, they don’t seem to notice.

Italians don’t appear to understand that business in Germany is done strictly according to the law and that we follow rules and procedures rather than getting things done “through the back door” and using key acquaintances. We know that sometimes influence counts in our country, too, but we don’t talk openly about it. During meetings Italians often talk two or three at a time and make a mockery of any agenda we attempt to start with. In general they agree to most of our proposals but only follow up on those that interest them. They are somewhat unreliable suppliers and late payers. When they negotiate a price, they start high and come down a lot, their final prices often being reasonable.

Other. With their relaxed nature and natural exuberance and optimism, they are in many respects the opposite of Germans, but they are pleasant companions (for a while).

How to Empathize and Motivate. We listen to their joys and woes and pretend we are interested. We go easy on the irony and play the “flexible price” game with them. We make allowances for late deliveries and payments. We hug them occasionally and try to enjoy their humanity.

The Americans and the Japanese

Americans through American Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. We Americans—the most courageous and dynamic people of the twentieth century—have a lot going for us. Lucky to have been born in God’s Country, with its protected geographical position and almost unlimited resources, we have certainly made the best of our good fortune. By conquering a vast continent and taming a wilderness, we have created the world’s biggest economy, lead all others in advanced technology, and are the undisputed champions of democracy and free trade. Imbued with the frontier spirit, we Americans work hard, play hard, move fast, and are pragmatic, optimistic, and future-oriented. We seek equality and individual liberty in a land where honest toil makes anything possible and where anyone can become president. The visible achievements and prosperity that make the United States the envy of other lands confirm the reality of the American Dream.

Communication. Americans communicate in a frank, direct manner: we “spell it out,” “tell it like it is,” and “lay our cards on the table.” In other words, we keep things simple and get to the point. We dislike devious discussion, though we may lace our message with humor. The communicative style is friendly from the outset, accompanied by smiles and the use of first names. Disagreements are expressed openly, without beating around the bush. We listen well, especially for technical details.

Social and Business Behavior. Because of the nature of the country’s social history, Americans have many easy strategies for meeting strangers. We make friends quickly, seek early trust, and are relaxed about manners and dress. We pride ourselves on being the world’s best small talkers. In the United States, different levels of society mingle easily; European-style snobbery is rare.

Americans are the world’s best businesspeople—the U.S. economy was dominant for most of the twentieth century and shows few signs of flagging. Among the reasons for this success are the willingness of Americans to think big and to take risks. We are good at sniffing out business opportunities, we move quickly to propose deals, and we put our money where our mouth is. Hardworking and persistent, we place emphasis on competence, and specialists may have their say, free of the hierarchical constraints common in other cultures. Contracts and commitments are binding, and American businesspeople normally stick to what has been agreed. Compared with many nationalities, we Americans work at a breakneck pace and take few holidays when there is a task to complete.

Other. We Americans feel strongly about our mission as world policeman and guarantor of basic freedoms. Our military can be called to arms quickly to defend democracy or trade routes, and at the turn of the twenty-first century, we remain the only true superpower.

How to Empathize and Motivate. We like straightforward deal- ers who play the game and share the risks. Earnestness is important to us and is better accompanied by a sense of humor.

Americans through Japanese Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. Americans are big, not only in their physical size but also in the way they think. Their houses are big, their cars are big, their ranches have thousands of acres. Biggest is generally considered best. They have led the world economically, politically, and militarily since 1945, and we Japanese have no quarrel with that. We are happy to be number two. Americans are well-meaning people who charge ahead with their policies, often dragging us along in their wake. It is good to have them as an ally, but we would be even happier if they tried to understand us better and learned the importance of face.

Communication. Americans always spell out their intentions in quite loud English from the outset. When we don’t understand the first time, they spell it out again in even louder English. They can’t understand why we are so quiet, and when we lapse into silence, it seems to make them nervous. They then speak again, even though it’s our turn. They think we are devious because we are less direct than they are. They often call us “inscrutable,” but really, they ought to “scrute” more.

Social and Business Behavior. They are immediately very friendly and open with complete strangers, pumping hands heartily (even violently) and saying they trust us. They are skilled at making small talk at cocktail parties, equaling the British and Canadians in this respect. We prefer restful silence, so we just drink and smile, but they are bigger drinkers than we are. We take them out to elegant restaurants, but they often gobble up their food quickly without showing due appreciation of our porcelain, table and food arrangements, and flowers. We notice they have trouble sitting on the floor. It must be their long legs.

When negotiating, Americans come straight to the point and ask us, “Do we have a deal?” when in fact we may be several months away from making a decision. They are quite happy airing differences of opinion in public, which is not at all our custom. They even differ in opinion among themselves and argue in front of us. They never spend a long enough time in Japan to set up a deal properly, always saying they have a plane to catch. When we know their departure time, we are able to use this knowledge to pressure them with last-minute changes. They seem to have no patience (compared with Asians) and do not understand how long it takes us to achieve a proper consensus. They honor their commitments but are unable to see the advantage of renegotiating a contract under certain circumstances. If we break a contract, they take us to court, even though we are good customers. They have more lawyers than we have soldiers!

Other. In spite of frequent misunderstandings and mutual sniping about protectionism, we see that U.S.-Japan trade is the biggest bilateral commerce the world has ever seen.

How to Empathize and Motivate. We motivate Americans by helping them to make money and by imitating certain of their qualities like punctuality, work ethic, and short holidays. We agree to nearly all their proposals but only follow up on those that are mutually profitable or beneficial to us. We pretend Japan is a democracy, just like the United States.

Japanese through Japanese Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The Japanese people are culturally very different from all others—in fact, we are unique. This uniqueness derives from our history of isolation and from the special qualities of the Japanese language. No one who is not a native of Japan can aspire to speak Japanese as we do and thus can never gain access to the superior thinking and culture of which the language is the vehicle. Japan’s general remoteness over two millennia and especially her 250-year period of complete isolation up to 1853 led her to develop a distinct society that has no equal in terms of group cooperation, national spirit, and high-context understanding. All of us are instinctively proud of our nationality and culture, which has attained unrivaled standards of honesty, loyalty, self-effacement, stoicism, bravery, self-sacrifice, unselfishness, and unfailing courtesy.

Communication. Japanese communication style has as its main premise the promotion of harmony among all interlocutors. Confrontation is avoided at all costs, and great care is taken to see to it that nobody loses face. What is said is actually of minor importance. How it is said, who says it, and when it is said are the vital ingredients. Japanese speak slowly, quietly, and politely, frequently offering the partner a turn to speak. Invariably we agree with the other side’s point of view in order not to offend or disap- point. It is true that a Japanese never says no. Alternative courses of action can be suggested in other, more subtle ways, and in due course after adequate reflection. We also often resort to silence, which can be soothing when shared and enjoyed.

Social and Business Behavior. The Japanese are excellent hosts who often entertain guests lavishly in expensive restaurants. We also believe in frequent gift giving, the gifts being selected not so much on the basis of intrinsic value as on the basis of their appropriateness. This activity is an example of Japanese thoughtfulness and our caring nature. Compassion comes naturally to us. In spite of our innate friendliness, however, we Japanese use surnames and titles and maintain certain formalities in social intercourse in order to show respect to the other person.

Courtesy and respect are maintained in business relations. We are patient but resilient negotiators and make unhurried decisions by general consensus. We do not often act as individuals but most often as team members. The company (kaisha) comes first, though we can be surprisingly accommodating to foreign partners, provided that harmony and courtesy are maintained. We prefer to do business with people to whom we have been properly introduced. Company reputation on both sides is very important. Because of the interlocking nature of Japan’s “web society,” we benefit from an excellent networking system from which foreign partners may also benefit.

Other. We are very honorable people who always strive to keep our word.

How to Empathize and Motivate. It is advisable to seek common ground with us; we love sharing. Oral agreements endure longer than written ones do.

Japanese through American Eyes

Values and Core Beliefs. The Japanese believe they are a unique people, and we heartily agree with them. They are so opaque! We don’t understand how they think, and it would seem that other Asians don’t either. The Japanese closed their country down for 250 years and would probably still have the blinds drawn if we had not opened them in 1853 with generous offers to trade. Even then their shogun was against it, but we had some pretty big guns, too. Today we can see what a great boon it was for both our countries.

Communication. Basically, the Japanese do not communicate; that is to say, we are usually in the dark as to their intentions. We don’t speak their language; they barely speak ours. The ones who can get by in English are the young, low-level employees, who have no influence. The (older) decision makers remain isolated behind a language curtain. Of course the Japanese come with interpreters, but they are the hardest of all to understand. We suspect that because they are so polite, they never say how things are. If you tell their boss something is impossible, they think you said you need more time to think about it. When the Japanese mean “I disagree,” they say, “We agree,” then cock their head to one side or sigh heavily.

Social and Business Behavior. The Japanese entertain us lavishly, spending more in one evening on a fine restaurant than our salaries for a month! The company comptrollers must be blind, gullible, or both. They also keep giving us presents when we have not earned them—we suspect they are softening us up to get better terms, but they say it’s just because we are so kind. They are also always apologizing for mistakes they have not made or rudenesses they have not shown. They are the most polite people on earth, unless you tread on their tatami with your shoes on. Even then they only giggle with a hand in front of their mouth.

When doing business, rule number one is to remember to give them your business card and accept theirs (tenderly). Without calling cards in Japan, it’s like meeting each other with no clothes on. The Japanese prefer bowing to shaking hands, though they will offer you their limp hand to press gently. If you go in for bowing at a reception, this will go down well, but you may have a backache the next morning. They don’t negotiate as we do, during a meeting. They simply state their position, two or three times, if you ask for more specificity. If you start to bargain, they look upset (or blank) and suggest your young men go with their young men to the bars that evening for a few whiskies and water. Whenever you ask an individual for a quick decision at a meeting, he will look sideways at his colleagues, who all smile at you under- standingly. Decisions in Japan take a long time (often months). The comforting thing is that they are always unanimous. They are pretty reliable in the end, though.

Other. When you get to know the Japanese, you realize they are really very kind—definitely a lot more considerate than New Yorkers.

How to Empathize and Motivate. The main thing is never to be rude to a Japanese, though you will often be tempted. Drink their green tea and keep trotting out the platitudes like they do (“Our Vice President so much enjoyed playing golf with Mr. Yamamoto at Hakone Country Club”). Reciprocate their gifts—they deserve them. Don’t talk about the war—it was all a big mistake.


Comparing the assessments above, we see a repetition of a number of trends in the way people judge themselves and others.

First, self-assessment is almost invariably made through rose- tinted spectacles. In a survey I conducted among one hundred Swedes in 1994, the Swedes chose the following ten values from a list of forty-eight to describe themselves: conscientiousness, honesty, loyalty, tolerance, equality, love of peace, love of nature, cleanliness, kindness, and modesty.

The respondents chose ten positive values and no negative ones, though the list contained many negative or neutral attributes. This euphemistic view of oneself varies slightly from nation to nation. The French, Chinese, Japanese, Swedes, and Americans are normally very proud of themselves. The British used to be—now they aren’t so sure. Germans, Italians, and Finns often indulge in bouts of healthy self-criticism, while genuine soul-searching is typical of Russians at a personal level and of Dutch and Norwegians at a national one. In general, however, we humans describe ourselves in glowing terms. Prior to September 11, 2001, the American Dream was a living reality for many Americans, though fortunes ebbed and flowed.

The second conclusion we can draw is that the rose-colored tint disappears when we look at other nationalities. At best we see them through plain glass (Americans looking at Canadians, Norwegians assessing the British, Italians viewing Spaniards); in the case of neighbors the tint is invariably a shade on the dark side. This is often the result of traditional, age-old antipathies (Serbs and Croats, Greeks and Turks, Romanians and Hungarians, Jews and Arabs, Koreans and Japanese) or—less seriously—the irritating proximity of a differing culture (Flemish and Walloons, Poles and Germans, Finns and Swedes, English and Irish, Fijian Polynesians and Indians, U.S. Americans and Mexicans). Only Canada and the United States share a long border with relatively little friction, and even the Canadians get nervous sometimes.

An interesting phenomenon is that we tend to put on relatively rose-colored spectacles for a cultural group on the other side of the neighbor. Consequently, Finns view Norwegians favorably, Portuguese admire the French, Poles like Hungarians more than their neighboring Slavs, Mexicans have a sneaking fondness for Canadians, French and Scots gang up on the English, and Italians reach out over France to the British; even Israel looks over Syria to get cozy with the Turks! Humans are a funny lot.

In the global village of the twenty-first century, will cultural spectacles be put aside? Increasing international contact gives us more familiarity with other peoples in business, social, and organizational situations. But, as we know, familiarity can breed contempt! However, we can expect and hope that a general, all-round improvement in educational standards as well as a dramatic increase in tourism will help to soften some of our antipathies and remove some of our biases against strangers. After all, the French and the Germans, traditional enemies, now view each other with some equanimity. That is indeed a cultural success story.

But “opticians” need not worry too much—this century will still see good trade in spectacles. The English may go to the sundrenched Costa del Sol, put on their rose-tinted sunglasses, and see the Spaniards in a favorable light in the euphoria of a temporary escape from rainy England. Rioja, gaspacho, and splendid tortillas will add to the rosiness of the lenses. But when they go home, they switch specs again. Like the myopic people we all are, we wear spectacles because we have to. If only the world’s opticians made similar spectacles!

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108 © 2008-2020.
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