Culture Clash


Sunday, October 14, 2001

Social context can have
a strong pull on behavior

People who knew both Seiko Koga and Kenji Mitsui thought they were an ideal couple. Seiko and Kenji met when both were working for Japanese-owned hotels in Hawaii. Earlier in their lives, both had been participants in exchange programs that took them to schools in the Eastern United States. In Hawaii, Seiko and Kenji dated and enjoyed their walks on the beach, drives up Tantalus to view sunsets and moonlit dinners in outdoor restaurants. They seemed to have endless time for each other and vowed that, after marriage, their love would never change.

After a year in Hawaii, they married and returned to jobs in Tokyo. Gradually, Seiko and Kenji felt their lives were changing. Kenji observed that the men who obtained promotions spent long hours in the office and then spent time with coworkers in various nightclubs. Because of the high cost of living, they rented a small apartment that demanded an hour's subway commute to work. Occasionally, Kenji missed the last train given the demands of after-hours carousing with clients. He would have to rent a hotel room, adding to expenses. Friends back in Hawaii were saddened to learn that Seiko and Kenji were talking about a divorce five years after their return to Japan.

Complex decisions such as whether to divorce will be influenced by cultural, economic and personal reasons. Any discussion of culture must include the fact that Seiko and Kenji courted in one place and then spent the first years of their marriage in a quite different place. In Hawaii, they courted according to cultural norms such as spending large amounts of time together, vowing to never change their commitment and exchanging many romantic gestures. Back in Japan, they had to adjust to a different set of cultural expectations that had a major impact on their marriage. In addition to the workplace demands Kenji faced, Seiko might be frustrated with her career advancement given limited promotion possibilities for women and pressures that she quit work and have children.

This incident and analysis developed from discussions with Melinda Wood of the University of Hawaii at West Oahu. While admittedly adding expense to marriage plans, dating couples like Kenji and Seiko might consider an extended visit to the city where they will eventually live. There, they would ask questions such as, "What will be the cultural expectations placed on us and what sorts of extensive effort will be necessary to have a successful marriage?"

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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