Culture Clash


Sunday, September 2, 2001

Fitting in to new
culture a challenge

Janet Fujimoto, originally from Los Angeles, worked in Honolulu for a large Japanese-owned hotel chain. She was well known to executives in Hawaii as a "fast tracker." This reputation was aided by her outgoing personality and willingness to take on projects beyond her job description. She was offered an assignment at company headquarters in Tokyo and accepted the position with enthusiasm.

Over the first six months of her assignment in Tokyo, Janet sensed changes in her behavior. She found herself dressing in a more conservative manner and wearing less makeup. She was careful not to disagree in public with her older male supervisors. If she had the opportunity to work on projects outside her written job responsibilities, she made sure that she did not encroach on a coworker's efforts. Even though she might want to spend time on her own interests and hobbies outside of work, she was careful to accept social invitations offered by coworkers.

Janet is adjusting to Japanese expectations that she fit into a group rather than stand out as a unique individual. Norms refer to shared and agreed upon behaviors, and they guide people in a wide variety of social interactions. The Japanese workplace has many social norms, and people are expected to pay careful attention to them. One of the most important norms is that people should not call too much attention to themselves. They should "fit in" and they signal acceptability of this norm with their dress, interactions with older supervisors, and cooperative efforts with coworkers. As children, all Japanese learn the adage, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." In the workplace, they frequently use this saying when observing someone who behaves differently from age peers. Norms help people deal with an uncertain future. We may not know exactly what will happen in 10 years. But if norms are taken seriously, we have the comfort of knowing that today's standards of behavior will still be in effect.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Helene Sokugawa, School of Architecture, University of Hawaii. People frequently ask the question, "Are these norms changing?" The answer is, not fast enough for the most ambitious and career-oriented Japanese women. Good advice for people assigned to Japan is to seek out coworkers who can answer questions about the importance of norms, the amount of deviation allowed, and whether norms are changing.

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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