Culture Clash


Sunday, July 14, 2002

Don’t always expect
a direct ‘thank you’
for help offered

'I hear that you're playing golf with the boss this afternoon," Daryl Nakata said to Steve Baxter as they shared a coffee break at the insurance company in Honolulu where they worked. Daryl had spent his entire life in Hawaii, and Steve had recently moved from the company's large branch in Los Angeles.

Daryl had become frustrated with the cumbersome system for travel reimbursements at the company. Employees often had to charge trips on their own credit cards and wait up to three months for repayments. He developed a software program that he felt would streamline the reimbursement process.

Daryl had never felt close to the company president, but he noticed that Steve had a good relationship given a shared interest in golf. He asked Steve to mention travel reimbursements and the new software during the golf match. Steve did so, the president seemed intrigued, and he directed that the accounting department try out the software.

Steve thought that he would receive an enthusiastic "thank you" from Daryl, but this did not happen.

The culture in which people are socialized offers them guidance for many everyday behaviors. In Hawaii, there is a mix of behaviors given Asian, Polynesian and American influences. In the case of direct thanks for help, there are "old school" and "new school" behaviors. If Daryl is behaving according to the old school still common in Asia, a direct "thank you" is not expected. People who have good relationships, as Steve and Daryl seem to in this incident, know that help is appreciated and so direct thanks are unnecessary. Further, if people demonstrate enthusiasm when saying "thank you," this is the sort of public display of emotion that is not encouraged.

The "new school" standards, expected among people socialized on the mainland United States, are that direct thanks should be offered quickly and with enthusiasm. Teenagers are given etiquette books for their birthdays to remind them of the social skills their parents have been trying to instill.

Before becoming upset, Steve should consider these old school and new school possibilities. If old school, there can be acknowledgement of the help, but it may come in a substitute form. Steve may find apple bananas from Daryl's backyard on his desk in a few weeks.

I once assisted a police officer, now a lieutenant, at a community meeting we both attended. He did not offer a direct "thank you," but he engaged in other behaviors that took much more time. He walked me to my car after the meeting. He laughed at my not-very-funny jokes. Later, he dropped some papayas off at my house. These substitute behaviors that take the place of a direct "thank you" are common in Hawaii.

Richard Brislin is a professor of management and industrial relations in the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Business Administration. He can be reached through the College Relations Office:

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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