The WorkingCulture Blog.  A discussion of workplace psychology, communication, and international teams. Authored by Kevin Ready.


Uh...The words are upside-down and sideways...

I appreciate the entheusiasm for foreign cultures, but this guy in Austin has these Kanji characters plastered upside down and sideways on his shiny truck.

I felt more than a little embarrased seeing them, for some reason.



I'm On The Phone (and NO, I don't see you.)

Working with Japanese engineers, one thing that was hard to get used to is how the phone is handled. I have noticed that for Japanese, being on the phone is often the same as being face-to-face with the person on the other end of the line. It is not infrequent that I see scenese on television where a salaryman is talking to his boss on a street payphone, and repeatedly bowing at the phone as he talks. That's kinda funny, and understandable.
One thing that often throws Americans for a loop is when they are sharing a working space with a Japanese who is on the phone. I have seen where a Japanese in 'cube land' America is talking on the phone, and an American coworker crossed deliberately into their field of view to get their attention. (Perhaps to point at their watch and say 'the meeting is in 5 minutes' or some such). More often than not, the Japanese guy or gal is going to ignore the American and not give any hint of recognition to them.
This can be irksome to say the least, as it is a direct sign of disrespect in America. When working here in the US it is OK to multitask when on the phone, so it can be a quick road to misunderstanding when any amount of hand waving or signalling gets not so much as a glance. No eye contact, no sign of recognition -- just focusing on the call.
This pattern is a sign of respect for the party on the other end of the line. The problem is that Americans may take it as a slight, and think that the Japanese guy or gal has an attitude problem. My advice, is that if your Japanese coworker is on the phone, just wait and come back later.

Image by


Don't Point that Thing At Me!

Sometimes body language can be a problem. It always counts, and in international teams it can sometimes fail to carry the intended result.

When working with Japanese folks, I am always very careful not to point at them when indicating one person over another for example. For some reason using the American 'pointing finger' is considered slightly boorish. When I do need to point or indicate a physical emphasis on something or someone I have adopted the habit of using my whole arm, at a low elevation, with an open 'back hand' position. This seems to be OK for most situations and does not raise any alarm bells. I have noticed that some Japanese executives tend to point at things (on a spreadsheet for instance) with their middle finger. This is not the 'preferred' way to point in the US (it is considered vulgar).

In China, it is discourteous to point or use your hands very vigorously when talking. It is preferred to maintain a neutral posture. If you do need to point, it is best to use your whole hand as with the Japanese.

In contrast to this, Italians and Greeks (and New Yorkers for that matter) often can get a lot of mileage out of gesturing and pointing. In this sense, those cultures are a complete turnaround from where you would be in Asia. Most of the U.S. falls somewhere in the middle of the pointing continuum.

The 'point' of this discussion is that the devil is in the details: Getting things right with different cultures starts with understanding what is normal and desirable in different contexts. While you will almost always get a free pass on a lot of things, it is best to save up as much good will as possible by getting the little things like body language right (or as right as possible) from the beginning.


When a name works in one country, it may not work in another . . .

My friend Sterling aptly pointed out that this product from China may have some unintended connotations in the United States. In case you don't see the problem, anything called "Pasture Cake" probably brings images of cow dung to mind. This unhappy imagery is only partially negated by the clean and attractive packaging.


Its Springtime: You're fired.

Japan is funny sometimes. We watch Japanese TV at home (more than American shows) and I noticed that a number of TV personalities all disappeared at the same time. The NHK news announcer lady, the performers on the kids TV show "okaa-san to ishyo", and others. In addition, a number of engineers we know in Japan have been shuffled around to different jobs and departments.

What is happening?

It wasn't an earthquake. It was the HR dept. version of Spring cleaning.

In Japan, the end of March, and beginning of April mark a very symbolic and important period of renewal. My wife Kazuko says that people want to feel something fresh is in place, and see something new. Right at the time when the cherry blossoms are blooming, people can enjoy the feeling of the ax falling down.

It really isn't that bad, since Japanese corporate culture still seeks to retain its people. It just seems to be an acceptable opportunity to reshuffle. The folks who disappeared from the TV shows are probably still employed by the network (the hosts on the kids show did a lot of highly technical tasks such as "dancing with bears" and "singing about fruit", so they are surely doing the same thing somewhere else now, right?)

I did notice, however, that the Big Names on TV are immune to flower season. They continue to narrate, bear dance, fruit sing or whatever season-to-season. A show called "Eigo de shabera-nai-to" has a host named Patrick Harlan (AKA "pakkun") that has demonstrated this kind of resilience. This is probably due to his good face/name recognition, his regular English lessons in "Aera" magazine, and the fact that he is one of only 3 or 4 foreigners on Japanese TV who can speak Japanese well enough to not be subtitled on every word and syllable. Another resilient guy is the eternally stone-faced male newsanchor at NHK. His lady partner got booted, but he is still there to tell the tale another day. Good for him.