Cracking the Coconut: Stretch Your Behavior to Work Globally

Japan is like a coconut. 

I don’t just mean it’s hard to “crack” the language and Tokyo’s subway map—although that can be pretty tough. I’m talking, of course, about Japanese culture in general. 

On a basic level, national cultures can be categorized as either “coconuts” or “peaches”. 

Coconut cultures are harder for outsiders to penetrate: there is that hard outer shell which can be very hard to access, but once you break through, you can get at the goodness within, and be part of the in-group. 

Other cultures are like peaches: soft and squishy on the outside, easy for anyone to get into, but with that hard pit at the center that makes it harder to have meaningful, deep relationships. 

In global business interactions, peaches and coconuts can have a hard time talking to each other. 

Think of something as simple as a business e-mail. 

Who you send it to, what kind of greeting you open with, what kind of logic you use to explain your points, all matter. In a hierarchical corporate culture—which is common in Japan—who you send the email to and who you cc on the email can be critical issues, especially if there is a significant gap in seniority “level” between the sender and recipient. To those of us from a more egalitarian culture, this can pose a challenge. 

So how to crack that coconut? 

How do you live, study, or work in Japan when you’re non-Japanese? Or how do you get to the peach pit if you’re living in a peach culture? 

More broadly, what can any of us do to communicate more effectively across cultures? 

There are three steps we can take to guide us to cross-cultural fluency: 
1. Self-analyze to figure out our own behaviors
2. Compare our behaviors to the norms in our new culture and identify large gaps
3. Stretch our behaviors to bridge those gaps 

Know yourself, know the gaps 

We each come from our own cultures and upbringings, which have given us conscious and unconscious assumptions about how to behave, what is considered common sense, what is considered the “right” behavior. Here in Japan there is a myth of cultural homogeneity, but even looking beyond stereotypes of Tokyo vs. Osaka, rural Japan vs. urban Japan—people are first and foremost individuals. 

National culture influences each of us—but it does not define us. 

So if we can’t use national cultures to help define our behaviors what can we do? We need to get inside our own heads, and do a bit of self-analysis to figure out how we function, and look at specific business behaviors, which can pose challenges for us. 

Luckily there are existing tools and frameworks which can help us to do this. 

We can use these frameworks to evaluate ourselves and evaluate the characteristics of new cultures to identify gaps. 

An excellent summary of the facets which define national cultures can be found in the book The Culture Map and online tools created by Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD business school. We can use those “culture maps” to identify how far we are from other cultures in specific business situations. But this all begins with self-awareness. We can’t identify how to adapt without first knowing where we are starting from. To identify specific challenges we face in our new culture, we need to look at the specific situations we are facing—emails, meetings, negotiations, and more. 

Stretch to bridge the gaps 

Once you have identified those gaps, it’s time to stretch your behavior to allow yourself to function more effectively in the new culture. The key word is “stretch”. To adapt and function better in a different culture, you should not change who you are. 

It’s important here to focus on changing behaviors, but not changing yourself. In the book Global Dexterity, Brandeis University professor Andy Molinsky describes how we each have a natural “comfort zone” for a given behavior, and we can stretch that comfort zone to overlap with the norms of a different culture. 

We can adapt by using our existing behaviors, without needing to change our core values. 

The GLOBIS Experience 

In September 2016, GLOBIS University welcomed 30 students into its Full-Time MBA program. Those students are a hugely diverse group, representing 15 countries with quite different national cultures. 

Yet they need to spend the next year of their MBA studies working together in class, debating productively but also producing work as teams. 

To help give them a head start in becoming a highly functional team, for the second straight year, I ran a half-day cross-cultural workshop with them, following the process described above. 

Over an afternoon, we worked on looking at behaviors as a group and as individuals so we could identify any cross-cultural gaps and help develop a strong class culture of their own. 

The feedback was great—they got increased awareness of cultural differences. More importantly they got an increased awareness of their own cultural assumptions, potential challenges, and the necessity of stretching their behavior to study together well, and to work and live in Japan more broadly. 

The diversity of that group of GLOBIS students highlights the benefits of working cross-culturally. 

The diverse viewpoints of such a group have lead to a level of innovation and creativity, which would be impossible in a monocultural environment. 

To leverage that diversity, it is first necessary to get over the gaps, which separate us and adapt our behaviors to work effectively. Then all of us, coconuts and peaches, can enjoy the fruits of cross-cultural work. 

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