Culture Clash


Reporters’ sources
are affected by culture

'This article about Japanese unemployment doesn't tell me very much," John Pierce said to himself as he was reading one of Japan's major daily newspapers. John was originally from Boston, now worked in Tokyo in the travel industry, and spoke fluent Japanese.

He later complained to a friend, "There is good coverage of statistics, but no treatment of how people are reacting to increasing unemployment. I want to know how college students feel about competing for fewer job openings, if personnel directors of organizations have to turn away good applicants, and what Japanese executives think about government plans for improving the economy."

John's reaction is based on cultural differences in people's willingness to talk to individuals who are outside their immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. For most people, newspaper reporters who call them on the phone are relative strangers. The question becomes, "Will I open up to this reporter and tell her what I think and feel about the subject matter she is investigating?" In the United States, the answer is "yes" often enough that reporters can interview many people and can include direct quotes in their newspaper articles. Since he is from Boston, where several newspapers compete for readership, John is accustomed to this type of media coverage.

In Japan, people are much more reticent to talk with people whom they do not know. Further, they are socialized not to cause difficulties and not to stand out from their peers. Every Japanese child learns the adage, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down!"

If Japanese businesspeople talk to reporters, they know they may be asked to reveal confidential information about their companies, and they may view this as disloyalty. If Japanese college students talk to reporters about their job searches, they fear being marked as whiners and complainers who no company will hire.

This difference between Americans and Japanese is sometimes called "the blab factor." One reason the United States has a vigorous free press is that reporters cultivate sources in their communities. The sources are willing to talk for various reasons: outrage at corrupt practices, revenge for past negative experiences, or a desire to help reporters with whom they have personal relationships. Without information from such sources, many important issues could not be reported to the general public. An editor once told me, "People often ask why we don't cover certain controversial issues. Is it because we are wimps? The answer is 'no!' We will cover issues if we have accurate information. But that information is often based on the willingness of insider sources to come forward."

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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