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Career Success
FEB 13, 2012

Personal Space and Global Business

By Tomoya Nakamura, Photographer Katsuo Sugano

Are you aware that each person has his/her own preference for personal space? Personal space can be said to be one’s comfort level of how far apart two people are when they stand next to each other. Generally, when people meet for the first time or with a member of the opposite sex, people tend to stand further apart. On the other hand, the personal space tends, of course, to be less among family members and couples.

Personal space in the business world

I would like to start off this column about personal space with the analogy of physical space in martial arts. In martial arts, it is usual that people practice with members who are from the same dojo (school). In these cases, people tend not to recognize their physical space. However, in matches at a large event such as an international summer retreat where various students gather from across the globe, students will suddenly be put into a situation where they recognize that physical space varies among people. We are put into a situation where we have to be conscious of an opponent’s reach, where his/her arm will drop on us when he/she uses it like a sword.

The concept of personal space can be found in the business world as well. Let’s take the example of a Japanese company, where businesspersons have been working for a long time. There is a kind of consensus on how everyone prefers to proceed with their tasks, express their opinions, and arrive at conclusions. However, as the world becomes more globalized, Japanese companies are encountering not only Asia and the West, but also emerging countries. In a global work environment, what is one supposed to do regarding personal space?

I had the opportunity to have a dialogue with a Japanese person who had been a Japanese Cabinet minister. When talking in Japanese, she maintained a personal space suitable for Japan. When we began the seminar in English, she easily shifted her personal space to one suitable for a global environment. I admired her in the way she changed so quickly and smoothly.

What is global personal space?

To understand personal space suitable for a global environment, let us imagine a global conference of 10 people where each participant is from a different country. For example, let’s assume that they are from the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Australia and Japan. Also, let’s suppose that the company is not based in Japan.

Here, if one maintains a Japanese personal space and thinks, “This is my first conference so I should wait to speak until after I am called upon,” the conference may end without the person ever speaking. Also, even if the person speaks, someone may interrupt to add his or her own opinion and the original opinion may not be fully expressed.

In a global environment, one should have the will to create space to express one’s opinion, the preparation to speak logically and immediately from the conclusion once that space is created, and the individual strength to fend off people who may interrupt so that the audience listens until the end of one’s idea.

Each participant brings to this global conference a sense of personal space. This sense of personal space is neither good nor bad, but is a reflection of the personal space common in his or her country. How should one cope with such differences in personal space?

When one must express a standpoint of one’s country in a global conference, I think that one must express his/her opinion in a manner or format acceptable in a global environment. Here, one is expected to speak with the same reasoning structure as seen in the West, even if the assertion may be different because of differing national interests.

However, if the situation allows for more time, and the participants have a chance to meet frequently, you can try to convey your thoughts in a local manner or a format different from that in a global environment. If I were to explain Japanese personal space to an international friend, I would often take him/her to eat Kaiseki Ryouri (traditional Japanese cuisine brought in small dishes often served on a personal table in a tatami room). This is because I prefer to introduce personal space in Japan through a real life example.

Now then, let’s think of the role Ki plays in filling the gap between personal space among different countries.

The Role of Ki in Global Business

First of all, through Ki one can help discern the authenticity of another person’s expressions. In a global environment, Ki can determine whether someone is just posturing out of obligation or if the expression is really genuine. Although an idea expressed at a conference may be adjusted for logic at a later time, one’s feelings at a conference cannot be hidden. This information can be useful at the next conference and may contribute towards building business relationships between the two countries.

If above holds true, how much should we apply Ki in a global environment? Toru Takahashi, who spent many years working abroad for a general trading company and is currently a Managing Director of GLOBIS Organizational Learning, writes the following:

“Team management composed of participants from many countries comes with various kinds of difficulties. One can become worn out mentally and physically, but cooperation can be achieved by thoroughly confronting each other’s differences. If a manager can successfully gather each person’s power, great power will manifest.”

This is not to say that one should compromise and come to an accord as efficiently as possible. Rather, everyone should speak with their true motives, entangle with each other, and, as a result, come to an aufheben, where global rules and local rules interchange.

Recall that I wrote in a previous volume that the power of a group or a team rises and falls according to human biorhythms, like a wave ebbing and flowing with the tide. We should consider if individual players have let out all of their Ki, and if now is the time to discuss about bigger issues and find a balance between national interests. As you can see in the 2nd and 3rd volumes of this column, as long as we live a physical existence, we cannot continue to let out Ki forever. Once we have let out Ki, we must then accumulate Ki again. In this way, Ki can help create the timing to integrate the greater expression of the whole, while allowing us to still express each of our own national standpoints.

In the platform of global business, various value systems, rules, and nationalities intersect. I believe Ki can be a guide which removes barriers to seeing the true nature of one’s business partners from other countries and finding a balance between national interests.

(This article was originally published on June 9, 2010)