“There is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in culture; there is only ‘different.’” That was the advice I got from a Rotarian mentor as a sixteen-year-old exchange student heading to Australia. It’s a message that I’ve never forgotten—and one that shapes my approach to cross-cultural communication today.
Making cultural comparisons is unhelpful. If I go to Australia and decide that Australian food is less interesting than Japanese food, then I start feeling superior. Alternatively, if I go to Australia and find the people there so friendly and easy-going that I start to find my fellow Japanese stiff and formal, I end up feeling inferior…
Either way, the result’s the same—neither feeling superior nor feeling inferior actually help with communicating across cultures.
An effective global businessperson has to be able to relate across cultures. That’s why one of the most important steps I took when forming the curriculum at GLOBIS, my Japan-based business school, was to establish a cross-cultural communication course.
I was personally involved in designing the course (as I am with all our classes), so I can tell you the basic 3-step theory:
1. Withhold judgment on which culture is “better.”
2. Understand the basis of difference and find common ground.
3. Build rapport based on respect for difference/shared common ground.
As a believer in cross-cultural communication, I’ve made it a family rule for all my children to go for a year abroad during high school. My third son is currently in Canada. One of his roommates there teased him by turning off the lights while he was in the shower. He was absolutely furious with him and he showed it. His straightforward (i.e. angry) reaction made it clear how far he was willing to be pushed, and his roommate stopped teasing him. They actually became better friends as a result.
What’s my takeaway from my son’s experience? That cross-cultural communication is not just about talking, but also about building bridges via non-verbal means—things like fooling around, fighting, arguing and doing sports.
When I was in Australia as a teenager, playing rugby, water polo and basketball certainly helped me “find common ground” and “build rapport” with my Australian teammates. It is far easier to have these sorts of experiences as a child than as an adult. (Rugby-tackling a prospective client may not be the best way to secure their business!)
Like learning to ride a bicycle, cross-cultural communication is a skill you never lose. I know that my experiences in Australia became a lifelong asset for me.
For example, after returning to Japan from Harvard Business School—somewhere I’d probably not have gone without my year abroad in Australia—I became the first chair of the YEO (Young Entrepreneurs' Organization) in Asia and the first Asian on their international board. I represented Asia, in all its cultural diversity, in a global forum and needed to have high-level East-East and East-West cross-cultural communication skills.
I read somewhere that the age at which you learn English (or any foreign language) will affect the way you relate to your overseas counterparts. People who learn English via immersion at a high-school age can easily build rapport because they speak in a natural, colloquial style and have the capacity to fool around a bit.
Contrastingly, people who only learn English as adults will tend to speak more formally and stiffly, with little in the way of humor or colloquialisms. This can make them rather off-putting.
The younger you start cross-cultural communication, the more capable of natural, frank and honest communication—in one word, relatable—you will be.
If you want to be a good leader in an international context, you need to start young: Get a “deep immersion” experience abroad in your teens, and build on that by following the 3 steps I outlined earlier.
I hope that my five sons, by spending a year abroad as high schoolers, will acquire the skills they need to succeed in our globalized world.
Cross-cultural communication ability is one of the most valuable intangible assets that anyone can have.
And if you disagree, I’m quite happy to fight you over it!
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