Tom walks into his potential new Japanese office.
He’s never opened a book on cross-cultural business (I am the Monkey! would be a great start), hasn’t learned anything about the culture, and barely put his shoes on the right feet this morning.
He enters the conference room, dressed casually, and goes to shake hands all around. The Japanese colleagues bow, and Tom bungles through, half-bowing, half-hand shaking.
When this exchange is over, they each present their business cards to Tom in turn. He accepts them with one hand and shoves them into his pocket. He forgot his back at the hotel.
Clearly, Tom was ill-prepared. And he didn’t get the job.
What did he do wrong?
Well, for one thing, he assumed sameness. And by that, I mean, he assumed Japanese culture and business etiquette was the same as his own.
What is “Normal”?
With the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about sameness in a way: all the general themes cultures have in common, from language to politics, from transportation to the arts.
Now, we’re going to talk about the dangers in assuming cultures are all the same.
First off, it’s completely natural to assume that other cultures fall in line with our own.
For one thing, from the time we are children, we’re taught a limited scope of what’s expected and accepted by the society into which we’ve been born; we’re taught our own culture’s values and norms.
We see this scope as “normal.” And when another culture falls outside our limited scope, their actions or ideologies are viewed as abnormal.
So with this implicit assumption that the rest of the world is normal like us, anything different feels wrong.
But, the more we are exposed to, the more our scope of “normal” evolves and grows. If we’re open to it, we learn that “normal” is not a universally fixed concept.
Success in a multicultural environment begins with abandoning assumptions. You can do this in five steps:
- Assume you know nothing
- Shed foundational views of right vs. wrong and normal vs. abnormal
- Know that you’ve been exposed to a microscopic worldview
- Admire the cultural diversity that paints the complex mural of humanity
- Recall the Baobab Theory of Culture and connect the dots from the roots to the branches, in order to understand cultural differences
Knowing all this, after abandoning assumptions, what should Tom have done differently during his Japanese meeting?
- Read a book on cross-cultural business
- Read up on Japanese business etiquette
- Dressed formally
- Bowed, instead of shaken hands (or both, if the Japanese counterparts offered a handshake)
- Been prepared with business cards, as this exchange is routine in Japan
- Accepted others’ business cards with both hands
- Read and memorized the name and important information on each card
- Placed the card carefully into a business card holder, instead of directly into the pocket
Respect is essential etiquette in Japanese business culture. Anything less is insulting.
By assuming sameness, Tom insulted his potential colleagues and cut short his success across cultures.
Next week, we’ll talk more about acquired and genetic perception and how they form our culture and our understanding of others.