Culture Clash


Some cultures
place high value
on following rules

During his orientation program prior to his departure for Osaka, George White learned that executives in Japanese organizations expect employees to engage in after-hours socializing. Originally from Newark, N.J., George had accepted a position at a large Japanese bank. One day, he was invited by colleagues to play golf on the coming Saturday. George looked forward to the golf game given that he liked the sport and felt that he could become better acquainted with his coworkers.

Weather predictions called for a temperature of 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity. George dressed in clothes he had brought with him from New Jersey: a fashionable set of white shorts and a lightweight designer shirt. Arriving at the golf course, George sensed that his Japanese coworkers were uncomfortable. He had learned just enough about Japanese non-verbal signals to realize that he had become the target of disapproval. Eventually, one of his coworkers mentioned that people don't wear shorts at this golf course: the rules call for males to wear long pants. When George asked if this and other rules were written down, his coworkers seemed puzzled by his question. From their point of view, everyone should know about dress standards at the golf course.

In Japan, rules are taken very seriously. One universal aspect of cultures is that the future cannot be predicted with certainty. Two possible responses to this fact are to have many written and unwritten rules so as to increase predictability. People in "rule oriented" cultures can't predict everything, but they can predict those aspects of behavior that are rule governed. Such behaviors include dress codes, punctuality, ways of interacting harmoniously with others and the importance of showing respect for superiors. Another response is to have as few rules as possible so that people can be flexible when faced with the future's uncertainties. If people lose their jobs, for example, they can search for new positions in many ways if their culture has relatively few "proper job search rules." Japan is a culture that values rules, while the United States is a culture that values flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Garr Reynolds, a marketing manager who lives in Silicon Valley, Calif. Japanese workers tell this story to each other. A company president informed a group of newly-hired employees that the workday is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and that the employee entrance would be closed at 8 a.m. sharp. One day, the president had a flat tire on his way to work and arrived late. He found the employee entrance locked and he would not ask that it be opened. Rules are rules, and he had to follow them since he did not want to be a poor example to his employees.

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:

E-mail to Business Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --