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Career Success
FEB 13, 2012

Personal Space and Global Business

By Tomoya Nakamura, Photographer Katsuo Sugano
Photography by Katsuo Sugano

Each person has his or her own preference for personal space, the comfort level of how far apart two people are when they stand next to each other. Unsurprisingly, when people meet for the first time or with a member of the opposite sex, they tend to stand further apart. When people meet family members, the space closes.

In martial arts, people practice with members who are from the same dojo, or school. In these cases, personal space plays almost no role. However, in large-scale events and competitions, students are put into situations in which they must be conscious of their opponent’s reach, where an arm can drop on us like a sword. The space around us is suddenly very important.

The concept of personal space can be found in the business world, as well.

Imagine a Japanese company with businesspersons who have been working together 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. Things run smoothly because everyone knows how everyone else works.

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, how are we supposed to gauge personal space?

I once had the opportunity to have a dialogue with a former Japanese Cabinet minister. When talking in Japanese, she maintained a fairly average Japanese sense of personal space. When we began the seminar in English, however, she shifted her personal space to a more global standard. I admired her way of changing so quickly and smoothly.

What is the global standard for personal space?

Imagine a global conference of 10 people where each participant is from a different country: the US, the UK, France, Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and Japan. Let’s suppose that they are all from a company not based in Japan.

Here, if the Japanese member thinks, “This is my first conference, so I should wait to speak until I am called upon,” the conference may end without this person ever saying a word. Or, if they do speak, they may be interrupted and defer to whoever is speaking over them, giving up on fully expressing their own opinion.

In a global environment, it’s important to create space to express an opinion, prepare to speak logically in that space, and fend off those who may interrupt so that the audience hears an idea in its entirety.

Everyone has his or her own sense of personal space, neither good nor bad, but certainly a reflection of culture and country. As a global community, how should we cope with such differences in personal space?

When expressing a standpoint of our country in a global setting, we must express our opinion in a manner or format acceptable in a global environment. Often, this means adopting the structure of the West. However, if the situation allows for more time, and the participants have a chance to meet frequently, we can try to convey our thoughts in a more local manner.

If I were to explain Japanese personal space to an international friend, I may take him or her to eat kaiseki ryouri (small dishes of traditional Japanese cuisine often served on a personal table in a tatami room). This is introduces personal space in Japan through a real life example.

The Role of Ki in Global Business

Through ki, one can help discern the authenticity of another person’s expressions. In a global environment, ki can determine whether someone is just acting out of obligation or genuine intent.

At a business conference, an idea may be presented and then later adjusted for logic at a later time, but what is said at the conference is likely genuine and can be useful later. Perhaps it can contribute towards building business relationships between the two countries.

So how much should we apply ki in a global environment?

Toru Takahashi, managing director of GLOBIS Organizational Learning, spent many years working abroad for a general trading company. He writes the following:

“Team management composed of participants from many countries comes with various 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 we 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.

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 bigger issues and find a balance between national interests. We cannot let out ki forever. Once it’s out, we need to replenish our supply. In this way, ki can help create the optimal timing for a greater expression of a whole while allowing each of us to still express our own national standpoints.

In the platform of global business, various value systems, rules, and nationalities intersect. Ki can be a guide which removes barriers to seeing the true nature of business partners from other countries, helping us all find the ideal balance of personal space and national interests.