Culture Clash


Cultural values combine
with individual differences
in the workplace

'I thought I understood the cultural emphasis on harmony and cooperation," Jack Parker wrote to friends from his home in Nagoya, Japan. "But I don't always see it." Jack was originally from Phoenix, Ariz., and had accepted a three-year assignment in Nagoya. He continued, "Two of my colleagues, for instance, are very quick to criticize others and do not seem to care about hurting their feelings. At the same time, others follow what I thought was an important part of Japanese culture: to be very sensitive to the opinions and feelings of others. All of these people are effective workers, and I can't figure out how they all can be successful in the company I work for."

Jack has encountered a complex aspect of culture's guidance on everyday behaviors. First, he has to keep in mind that the Japanese emphasis on politeness and harmony is focused on some but not all people. The focus is on people "in- between" those who are total strangers, and those with whom one has close and long-term relations. These in-between people include coworkers who are not close colleagues, visitors referred by long-time friends, old school chums who one sees a few times a year, and people who might become long-term customers and clients.

For people who are very close, different Japanese bring varying styles of interpersonal interaction. In other words, they add their individual differences to the cultural guidance learned during their socialization. Some people maintain a harmonious and soft interpersonal style with those who are close. Jack referred to some of these people in his letter. Other Japanese drop the emphasis on harmony and become more direct and demanding. They draw from another aspect of Japanese culture: once group ties are formed, they are permanent. The group becomes an unmovable rock, and people don't spend time and energy maintaining rocks. Rather, the presence of rocks is taken for granted, as are long term relationships among some Japanese.

The difference between a harmonious style and a more direct and critical style is often based on interactions with family members. Some Japanese parents try to instill a harmonious style that extends to interactions among all family members, including themselves. They are not always successful, but if they are, then the children of these families will likely bring a cooperative and sensitive style to their eventual workplaces.

Other parents tolerate teenage loudness, rudeness and rebelliousness similar to that found in urban areas all over the world. This toleration extends only to family members: interactions with others (teachers, visitors, salespeople) are expected to be unfailingly polite. But if Japanese teenagers become accustomed to this less-than-harmonious style among those close to them, they may bring this approach to their interactions with long-term colleagues at work.

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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