Hidden Differences:Doing Business with The Japanese
By Edward T. Hall and Mildred Reed Hall
Key Concepts: Underlying Structures of Culture
Culture is Communication
In physics today, so far as we know, the galaxies that one studies are controlled by the same laws. This is not entirely true of the worlds created by humans. Each cultural world operates according to its own internal dynamic, its own principles, and its own laws – written and unwritten. Even time and space are unique to each culture. There are, however, some common threads that run through all cultures.
Any culture is primarily a system for creating, sending, storing, and processing information. Communication underlies everything. Although we tend to regard language as the main channel of communication, research reveals that anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of information is communicated by other means.
The world of communication can be divided into three parts: words, material things, and behavior. Words are the medium of business, politics, and diplomacy. Material things are usually indicators of status and power. Behavior provides feedback on how other people feel and includes techniques for avoiding confrontation.
By studying these things in our own and other cultures, we can come to understand a vast unexplored region of human behavior that exists outside the range of people’s conscious awareness: informatics. This field includes a broad range evolutionary and emergent ideas, practices, and solutions to problems which have their roots not in the lofty ideas of philosophers but in the common clay of the shared experiences of ordinary people. They are practical as well as fascinating; the study of Japanese informatics well greatly benefit American business.
If we do not pay attention to these elements, not only will we learn nothing of informatics, bit the system of culture will not work for us, whether we are in our native culture or another. Culture can be likened to a giant, extraordinary complex, subtle computer. Its programs guide the actions and responses of every person, and these programs must be mastered by anyone wishing to make the system work.
"Making the system work" requires attention to everything people do to survive, advance in the world, and gain satisfaction from life. Failure can often be attributed to one of the following errors:
Cultural communications are deeper and more complex than spoken or written messages. The essence of effective cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing the right responses than with sending the "right" messages. We offer here some conceptual tools to help our readers decipher the complex, unspoken rules of Japanese culture.
Fast and Slow Messages: Finding the Appropriate Speed
Since information underlies virtually everything, it is not surprising that the speed with which a particular message can be decoded and acted on is an important factor in human communication. Therefore, one would expect to find that there are fast and slow messages-which is precisely the case. A headline or cartoon, for example, is fast; the meaning that one extracts from books or art is slow. A fast message sent to people who are geared to a slow format will usually miss the target. While the content of the wrong-speed message may be understandable, it won’t be received by someone accustomed to or expecting a different speed. The problem is that few people are aware that information can be sent at different speeds.
EXAMPLES OF FAST AND SLOW MESSAGES
Fast Messages Slow Messages
A communiqué An ambassador
TV Commercials TV documentary
Easy familiarity Deep relationships
Almost everything in life can be placed somewhere along the fast/slow message-speed spectrum. Such things as diplomacy, research, writing books, and creating art are accomplished in the slow mode. Buddha, Confucius, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Rembrandt all produced messages that human beings are still deciphering hundreds of years after the fact. Language is a very slow message; after 4000 years, human beings are just beginning to discover what language is all about. The same can be said of culture, which incorporates multiple styles of "languages" that only release messages very, very slowly. Some cultures are understood more slowly than others. It can take years before an American can assemble enough dara and enough understanding to "read" the Japanese at even the elementary level. In fact, there are some Americans who unfortunately never do "get the message." This is in part because for Americans Japan is a slow message.
In essence a person is a slow message; it takes time to get to know someone well. The message is, of course, slower in some cultures than in others. In Japan, personal relationships and friendships tend to take a long time to solidify. This is largely a function of the hierarchical system in Japan, which integrates many Japanese into close-knit networks. Nevertheless, the businessman from America would do well to attempt to be close friends with the Japanese, for whom closeness in relationships is a well-developed drive.
In countries such as the United States, developing friendships is easy enough Foreigners have often commented on how "unbelievably friendly" the Americans are. However, when Edward T. Hall studied the subject for the U.S. State Department, he discovered a worldwide complaint about Americans: they seem capable of forming only one kind of friendship – the informal, superficial kind that does not involve an exchange of deep confidences. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a rule Americans are very different from their Japanese counterparts in this regard. In this sense, then, Americans will have to take longer to "read" the Japanese than they are accustomed to.
High and Low Context: How Much Information is Enough?
Context is the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably bound up with the meaning of that event. The elements that combine to produce a given meaning – events and context – are in different proportions depending on the culture. The cultures of the world can be compared on a scale from high to low context.
A high context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code. Twins who have grown up together can and do communicate more economically (HC) than two lawyers in a courtroom during a trial (LC), a mathematician programming a computer, two politicians drafting legislation, two administrators writing a regulation.
Edward T. Hall, 1976
Japanese, Arabs, and Mediterranean peoples who have extensive information networks among family, friends, colleguagues, and clients, and who are involved in close person relationships, are "high-context" (HC). As a result, for the most normal transactions in daily life they do not require, nor do they expect, much in-depth background information. This is because it is their nature to keep themselves informed about everything having to do with people who important in their lives. Low-context people include the Americans and the Germans, Swiss, Scandinavians, and other northern Europeans. Within each culture, of course, there are specific individual differences in the need for contexting-that is, the process of filling in background data-but it is helpful to know whether or not the culture of a particular country falls on the high or low side of the scale.
Contexting performs multiple functions beyond those already described. For example, any shift in the level of context is a communication. The shift can be up the scale, indicating a warming of the relationship, or down the scale(lowering the context), communicating coolness or displeasure-signing that something has gone wrong with a relationship. For example, the boss who is annoyed with his assistant and shifts from the high context, familiar form of address to the low-context, formal form of address is telling the assistant in no uncertain terms that he has stepped out of line and incurred disfavor in the boss’s eyes. Moving in the high context direction is a source of daily feedback in Japan as to how things are going. The day starts with the use of honorifics (formal forms of address attached to the name). If things are going well the honorifics are dropped as the day progresses. First-naming in the United States is an artificial attempt at high-contexting which is not really appreciated by the Japanese(or most other foreign peoples). One is always safe using a formal form of address in Japan. Insofar as we have been able to test our assumptions concerning the significance of high and low contexting, the rules are universal.
Many white Americans are low-context. American culture does not favor extensive, well-developed informals information networks. We do have them, but in comparison with the Japanese ours are limited in scope and development. What follows from this is that Americans feel the need to be contexted any time they are asked to do something or to make a decision. This need for detailed background information stems from the fact that the American approach to life is quite segmented and focus on discreet, compartmentalized bits of information. Americans need to know what is going to be in that compartment before they commit themselves. The authors experienced this need in Japan when we were asked to supply names of Japanese and Americans for a small conference. Like most prudent American, we were reluctant to provide name until we knew what the conference was about and what the individuals recommended would be expected to do. This seemed logical and reasonable enough to us. Nevertheless, our reluctance was interpreted as being difficult and possibly even obstructionist by our Japanese colleagues. To their way of think the mere presence of certain individuals endows a group and its activities with authority and status, while Americans tend to place more importance on the agenda and on the relevance of the expertise of individuals to that agenda.
Another example of the contrast between how high- and low-context systems work is this: consider a top American executive working in an office and receiving a normal quota of visitors, usually one at a time. Most of the information that is relevant to the job originates from the few people the executive sees in the course of the day, as well as from what she or he reads. This is why the advisors who surround American company Presidents are so important, for they, and they alone, control the content and the flow of information to the chief executive.
Contrast this with the office of Japanese businessman, where even vice-presidents and pother top managers share offices so they can share information. Not only are people constantly coming and going, both seeking and giving information, but the entire form and function of the organization is centered on gathering, processing, and disseminating information. Everyone stays informed about every aspect of the business and knows who is best informed on what subjects.
To give another example, in Germany virtually everything is low-context and compartmentalized. The executive office is both a refuge and a screen – a refuge for the boss from the distractions of day-to-day office interactions and a screen for the employees from continual supervision. Information communicated in the office is not shared except with a select few – the exact antithesis of the Japanese high context approach that places them in a sea of information. The Germans, and to a lesser extent the Americans, produce and work with islands of information.
High-context people are apt to become impatient and irritated when low-context people insist on giving them information they don’t need. Conversely, low-context people are at a loss when high-context people do not provide enough information. One of the great communications challenges in life is to find the appropriate level of contexting needed in each situation. Too much information leads people to feel they are being talked down to; too little information can mystify them or make them feel left out. Ordinarily, people make these adjustments automatically in their own country, but in other countries their messages frequently miss the target.
The other side of the coin when considering context level is the apparent paradox that high-context people like the Japanese, when evaluating a new enterprise to which they have not been contexted. Annual reports or tax returns are not enough. Furthermore, they will keep asking until they get the information they want. Being high context, the Japanese need to make their own synthesis of the meanings of the figures. Unlike Americans, they feel uncomfortable with someone else’s synthesis, someone else’s "bottom line."
Every living thing has a visible physical boundary – its skin – separating it from its external environment. This visible boundary is surrounded by a series of invisible boundaries that are more difficult to define but are just as real. These other boundaries begin with the individual’s personal space and terminate with her or his "territory."
Territoriality in animals is the act of laying claim to and defending a territory. It is a vital link in the chain of events necessary for survival. In humans territoriality is highly developed and strongly influenced by culture. It is strong in all humans but is particularly strong in American culture. In the traditional American family a woman’s feelings about her kitchen and her home, and a man’s feelings about his particular chair, his office and desk or his study are strictly territorial.
Space also communicates power. A corner office suite in the United States is conventionally occupied by "the brass," and a private office in any location has more status than a desk in the open without walls. The top floors are reserved for high-ranking officials and executives. In Japan, however, top Japanese executives rarely use their private offices except for meetings with outsiders. They prefer to work in large open areas, surrounded by colleagues, to insure constant interaction and information flow. Being a group oriented people, the Japanese have made their spaces reflect the community bias. Private offices are not the norm in Japan.
Personal Space is another form of territory. Each person has around him an invisible bubble of space which expands and contracts depending on a number of things: the relationship to the people nearby, the person’s emotional state, cultural background, and the activity being performed. Few people are allowed to penetrate this bit of mobile territory and then only for short periods of time. Changes in the bubble brought about by cramped quarters or crowding cause people to feel uncomfortable or aggressive. In northern Europe, the bubbles are quite large and people keep their distance. In southern France, Italy, Greece and Spain, the bubbles get smaller and smaller so that the distance is perceived as intimate in the north overlaps normal conversational distance in the south, all of which means that Mediterranean Europeans "get too close" to the Germans, the Scandinavians, the English, and those Americans of northern European ancestry. Moving around the world to Japan, everything changes. The personal bubble is transmuted into an organizational bubble, so that three vice-presidents working in a single office can share everything. The Japanese do have personal space; however, the actual distance is not as important as other signs of rank and intimacy such as the depth of a bow or the language being used. The Japanese accept high density and a degree of crowding in public spaces that would be unacceptable to Americans. Their houses, apartments, and offices are usually smaller and more crowded than our own. Their subways and trains are often packed with people. Cultural differences in the size and penetrability of the space bubble are some of the great unconscious irritants that must be overcome when working in Japan.
The Multisensory Spatial Experience
Few people realize that space is perceived by all the senses, not by vision alone. Auditory space is perceived by the ears, thermal space by the skin, kinesthetic space by the muscles, and olfactory space by the nose. Again, one might imagine, there are great cultural differences in the programming of the senses. High-context people reject auditory screening and thrive on being open to interruptions and in tune with what goes on around them. Hence, in Japanese cities such as Tokyo, one is periodically and "intrusively" bombarded by loudspeakers broadcasting political statements that experienced by the Americans as "much too loud!" These interruptions-and that is what they are to Americans-cause complaints: "Why do they allow that? Can’t somebody do something?"
Unconscious Reactions to Spatial Differences
All human beings learn literally hundreds of spatial cues as they mature. The meaning of these spatial cues is learned in the context of their own culture. These cues and their associated behaviors are designed to release unconscious responses just as a fragrance might trigger a memory. When people travel and experience how space is handled in other
Parts of the world, the starling variations they encounter release a visceral response. Since
most people don’t think about space as being culturally patterned, foreign spatial cues are
often misinterpreted and can lead to bad feelings. In fact, these feelings are often displaced onto the people of the country. Feelings Americans have about the way the Japanese handle space will be projected onto the Japanese people in a most personal way. Sometimes when a foreigner appears aggressive or pushy, or remote and cold, it may mean only that his personal distances are different from yours.
Spatial changes give tone to communication, accent it, and at times even override the spoken word. As people interact, the flow and shift of distance between them is integral to the communication process. For example, if a stranger does not maintain "normal" conversational distance and gets too close, our reaction is automatic – we feel uncomfortable, sometimes even offended or threatened and we back up.
Human beings in the course of a lifetime incorporate literally hundreds of spatial cues. They imbibe the significance of these cues like mother’s milk, in the context of their own culture. Just as a fragrance will trigger a memory, these cues and their associated behaviors release unconscious responses, regulating the tone, tempo, and mood of human transactions.
Since most people don’t think about personal distance as something that is culturally patterned, foreign spatial cues are almost inevitably misinterpreted. This can lead to bad feelings which are then projected onto the people from the other culture in a most personal way. When a foreigner appears aggressive and pushy, or remote and cold, it may mean only that her or his personal distance is different from yours.
Americans have strong feelings about proximity and the attendant rights, responsibilities, and obligations associated with being a neighbor. Neighbors should be friendly and agreeable, cut their lawns, keep their places up, and do their bit for the neighborhood. By contrast, in France and Germany, simply sharing adjacent houses does not necessarily mean that people will interact with each other, particularly if they have not met socially. Proximity requires different behavior in other cultures.
Life on earth evolved in response to the cycles of day and night and the ebb and flow of the tides. As humans evolved, a multiplicity of internal biological clocks also developed. These biological clocks now regulate most of the physiological functions of our bodies. It is not surprising, therefore, that human concepts of time grew out of the natural rhythms associated with daily, monthly, and annual cycles. From the beginning humans have been tied to growing seasons and were dependent on the forces and rhythms of nature.
Out of this background two time systems evolved – one as an expression of our biological clocks, the other of the solar, lunar, and annual cycles. These systems will be described under the headings "Time as Structure" and "Time as Communication." In the sections that follow we restrict ourselves to those manifestations of time that have proved to be stumbling blocks at the cultural interface.
Monochronic and Polychronic Time
There are many kinds of time systems in the world, but two are most important to international business. We call them monochronic and polychronic time. Monochronic time means paying attention to and doing only one thing at a time. Polychronic time means being involved with many things at once. Like oil and water, the two systems do not mix.
In monochronic cultures, time is experienced and used in a linear way – comparable to a road extending from the past into the future. Monochronic time is divided quite naturally into segments; it is scheduled and compartmentalized, making it possible for a person to concentrate on one thing at a time. In a monochronic system, the schedule may take priority above all else and be treated as sacred and unalterable.
Monochronic time is perceived as being almost tangible: people talk about it as though it were money, as something that can be "spent," "saved," "wasted," and "lost." It is also used as a classification system for ordering life and setting priorities: "I don’t time to see him." Because monochronic time concentrates on one thing at a time, people who are governed by it don’t like to be interrupted. Monochronic time seals people off from one another and, as a result, intensifies some relationships while shortchanging others. Time becomes a room which some people are allowed to enter, while others are excluded.
Monochronic time dominates most business in the United States. While Americans perceive it as almost in the air they breathe, it is nevertheless a learned product of northern European culture and is therefore arbitrary and imposed. Monochronic time is an artifact of the industrial revolution in England; factory life required the labor force to be on hand and in place at an appointed hour. In spite of the fact that it is learned, monochronic time now appears to be natural and logical because the great majority of Americans grew up in monochronic time systems with whistles and bells counting off the hours.
Other Western cultures – Switzerland, Germany, and Scandinavia in particular – are dominated by the iron hand of monochronic time as well. German and Swiss cultures represent classic examples of monochronic time. Still, monochronic time is not natural time; in fact, it seems to violate many of humanity’s innate rhythms.
In almost every respect, polychronic systems are the antithesis of monochronic systems. Polychronic time is characterized by the simultaneous occurrence of many things and by a great involvement with people. There is more emphasis on completing human transactions than on holding on to schedules. For example, two polychronic Latins conversing on a street corner would likely opt to be later for their next appointment rather than abruptly terminate the conversation before its natural conclusion. Polychronic time is experienced as much less tangible than monochronic time and can better be compared to a single point than to a road.
Proper understanding of the difference between the monochronic and polychronic time systems will be helpful in dealing with the time-flexible Mediterranean peoples. While the generalizations listed below do not apply equally to all cultures, they will help convey a pattern:
|MONOCHRONIC PEOPLE||POLYCHRONIC PEOPLE|
Do one thing at a time
|Do many things at once|
|Concentrate on the job||Are highly distractible and subject to interruptions|
|Take time commitments (deadlines, schedules) seriously||Consider time commitments an objective to be achieved, if possible|
|Are low-context and need information||Are high-context and already have information|
|Are committed to the job||
Are committed to people and human relationships
|Adhere religiously to plans||Change plans often and easily|
|Are concerned about not disturbing others; follow rules of privacy and consideration||Are more concerned with those who are closely related (family, friends, close business associates) than with privacy|
|Show great respect for private property; seldom borrow or lend||Borrow and lend things often and easily|
|Emphasize promptness||Base promptness on the relationship|
|Are accustomed to short-term relationships||Have strong tendency to build lifetime relationship|
The Relation between Time and Space
In monochronic time cultures the emphasis is on the compartmentalization of functions and people. Private offices are sound-proof if possible. In polychronic Mediterranean cultures, business offices often have large reception areas where people can wait. Company or government officials may even transact their business by moving about in the reception area, stopping to confer with this group and that one until everyone has been attended to.
In polychronic Japan, is to be avoided at all costs because it disrupts the flow of information by shutting people off from one another. In polychronic systems, appointments mean very little and may be shifted around even at the last minute to accommodate someone more important in an individual’s hierarchy of family, friends, or associates. Some polychronic people (such as Latin Americans and Arabs) give precedence to their large circle of family members over any business obligation (this is not true of Japanese, who put business first). Polychronic people also have many close friends and good clients with whom they spend a great deal of time. The close links to clients or customers creates a reciprocal feeling of obligation and a mutual desire to be helpful. Is it any wonder that Polychronic people attach so little importance to such things as schedules or agendas? There are other factors, of course, such as the fact that in Japan one of the principal reasons to get together around a table with good food and in congenial surroundings is to strengthen the bonds of friendship and to get to know people.
Polychronic Time and Information
Polychronic people live in a sea of information. They feel they must be up to the minute about everything and everybody, be it business or personal. Therefore, they tend to be inquisitive.
It is impossible to know how many millions of dollars have been lost in international business because monochronic and polychronic people do not understand each other or even realize that two such different time systems exist. The following example illustrates how difficult it is for these two types to relate. While the example in this case do not derive from Japanese situations, the patterns and principles are applicable:
A French salesman working for a French company that had recently been bought by Americans found himself with a new American manager who expected instant results and higher profits immediately. Because of the emphasis on personal relationships, it frequently takes years to develop customers in polychronic France, and, in family-owned firms, relationships with customers may span generations. The American manager, not understanding this, ordered the salesman to develop new customers within three months. The salesman knew this was impossible and had to resign, asserting his legal right to take with him all the loyal customers he had developed over the years. Neither side understood what had happened.
Similar differences exist between the United States and Japan. In Japanese meetings, the information flow is high, and one is expected to read other people’s thoughts, intuit the state of their business, and even garner indirectly what government regulations are in the offing. A tight, fixed agenda can be an encumbrance, even an insult to one’s intelligence. Most, if not all, of those present have a pretty good idea of what will be discussed beforehand. The purpose of the meeting is to create a consensus. Adherence to a rigid agenda and the achievement of consensus represent opposite goals and do not mix. The importance of this basic dichotomy cannot be overemphasized.
Time as a Measure of Competence
In Japan, time on the job is a measure of loyalty to the organization. In America, time on the job can be a measuring rod for competence, effort and achievement. How long a person holds a job before being promoted is one example; how long he remains in a position of authority and prestige is another. Here is an example of how culture can affect perception: A person of no great intelligence or ambition in the United States can be in a job for years, contributing only the bare minimum; yet the fact that he has been on the job a long time automatically gives him status.
Past- and Future-Oriented Countries
It is always important to know which segments of the time frame are emphasized. Cultures in countries such as Iran, India and those of the Far East are past-oriented. Others, such as that of the urban United States, are oriented to the present and short-term future; still others, such as those of Latin America, are both past- and present-oriented. In Germany, where historical background is very important, every talk, book, or article begins with background information giving an historical perspective. This irritates many foreigners who keep wondering, "Why don’t they get on with it? After all, I am educated. Don’t the Germans know that?" The Japanese too are steeped in history, yet they are also present-oriented and very good long-term planners. At present, there is no scientific explanation for why and how differences of this sort came about.
Time as Communication
As surely as each culture has its spoken language, each has its own language of time; to function effectively in Japan you must learn the Japanese language of time. We each take our own time system for granted and project it onto other cultures. When this happens, we fail to read the hidden messages in the foreign time system and thereby deny ourselves vital feedback.
Time is a basic systems of both communication and organization. For Americans, the use of appointment-schedule time reveals how people feel about each other, how significant their business is, and where they rank in the status system. Time can also be used as an especially powerful form of insult. Furthermore, because the rules are informal, they operate largely out-of-awareness and, as a consequence, are less subject to conscious manipulation than language.
It is important, therefore, to know how to read the messages associated with time in other cultures. In Japan, appointments and scheduling are handled according to monochronic-time rules, whereas almost everything is polychronic. It is important to be on time in Japan for every appointment, particularly for golf games.
Tempo, Rhythm, and Synchrony
Rhythm is an intangible but important aspect of time. Because nature’s cycles are rhythmic, it is understandable that rhythm and tempo are distinguishing features of any culture. Rhythm ties the people of a culture together and can also alienate them from members of other cultures. In some cultures people move very slowly; in others, they move rapidly. When people from two such different cultures meet, they are apt to have difficulty relating because they are not "in sync." This is important because synchrony – the subtle ability to move together – is vital to all collaborative efforts, be they conferring, administering, working together on machines, or buying and selling.
People who move at a fast tempo are often perceived as "tailgating" those who move more slowly, and tailgating doesn’t contribute to harmonious interaction – nor does forcing fast-paced people to move too slowly. Americans complain that the Japanese take forever to reach decisions. Japanese complain that Americans do not respect their process of reaching consensus, which requires much more time than decision-making in America. Like the tonal scale of Japanese music, Japanese time is out of phase with American time, and vice versa. One must always be contexted to the local time system. There will be times when everything seems to be at a standstill, but actually a great deal is going on behind the scenes. Then there will be other times when everything moves at lightning speed and it is necessary to stand aside, to get out of the way.
Scheduling and Lead Time
To conduct business in an orderly manner in other countries, it is essential to know how much or how little lead time is required for each activity: how far ahead to request an appointment or schedule meetings and vacations, and how much time to allow for the preparation of a major report. In both the United States and Germany, schedules are sacred; in France scheduling frequently cannot be initiated until meetings are held with concerned members of the organization to permit essential discussions. Input from everyone is solicited and eventually a consensus is reached. Once consensus is reached, Japanese expect immediate action.
The system works well within Japan, but there are complications whenever overseas partners
or participants are involved, most of whom have scheduled their own activities up to two years in advance. Lead time is itself a communication as well as an element in organization.
Lead time varies from culture to culture. In the United States the amount of lead time can be read as an index of the relative importance of the business to be conducted, as well as the status of the individuals concerned. Short lead time means that the business is of little importance; the longer the lead time, the greater the value of the proceedings. In some countries, two weeks is the minimum advance time for requesting appointments, while in Arab countries, two weeks may be too long – a date set so far in advance "slides off their minds"; three or four days may be preferable. In Japan lead time is usually much shorter than in the United States, and it is difficult to say how many conferences on important subjects, attended by all the most competent and prestigious Japanese leaders in their fields, fail to attract suitable counterparts from the United States because of the short lead time. Although misunderstandings are blameless artifacts of the way two very different systems work, accidents of culture are seldom understood for what they are.
Another instance of time as communication is the practice of setting a date to end something. For example, Americans often schedule how long they will stay in Japan for a series of meetings, thus creating the psychological pressure of having to arrive at a decision by a certain date. This is a mistake. To keep from being under the psychological pressure of arriving at a decision by a particular date, be flexible. In this instance, the Japanese are very aware of the American pressure of being "under the gun," and use it to their advantage during negotiations.
The Importance of Proper Timing
Choosing the correct timing of an important event is crucial. Politicians stake their careers on it. In government and business alike, announcements of major changes or new programs must be carefully timed. The significance of different time segments of the day also must be considered. Certain times of the day, month, or year are reserved for certain activities (vacations, meal times, etc.) and are not ordinarily interchangeable. In general in northern European cultures and in the United States, anything that occurs outside of business hours, very early in the morning, or late at night suggests an emergency. In Japan, there are also propitious and nonpropitious times; the system is sufficiently complex that it is wise to seek the advice of a local expert. In America, the short business lunch is common and the business dinner rare; this is not so in Japan, where the function of the business lunch and dinner is to create the proper atmosphere and get acquainted. Relaxing with business clients after work is crucial to building the close rapport that is absolutely necessary if one is to do business in Japan. Evenings are reserved for socializing the business partners and clients.
Appointments and Keeping People Waiting
How people treat time conveys how they regard the business or the person with whom they are dealing. Waiting time, for example, carries strong messages. In the United States you do not expect to be kept waiting—only people of very high status can keep people waiting without causing overt resentment. Having to wait is not only demeaning for Americans, but also indicates a lack of organization as well as lack of consideration for others.
Clearly, interactions between monochronic and polychronic people can be stressful unless both parties know and can decode the meanings behind each other’s language of time. The language of time is much more stable and resistant to change than other cultural systems. We were once involved in a research project in New Mexico, conducting interviews with Hispanics. Our subjects were sixth- and seventh-generation descendants of the original Spanish families who settled in North America in the early seventeenth century. Despite constant contact with Anglo-Saxon Americans for well over a hundred years, most of these Hispanics have remained polychronic. In three summers of interviewing we never once achieved our scheduled goal of five interviews each week for each interviewer. We were lucky to have two or three. Interviews in Hispanic homes or offices were constantly interrupted when families came to visit or a friend dropped by. The Hispanics seemed to be juggling half a dozen activities simultaneously, even while the interviews were in progress.
Since we are monochronic Anglo-Saxons, this caused us no little concern and considerable distress. It is hard not to respond emotionally when the rules of your own time system are violated. Nor was an intellectual understanding of the problem much help at first. We did recognize, however, that what we were experiencing was a consequence of cultural differences and was, therefore, a part of our data. This led us to a better understanding of the importance as well as the subtleties of information flow and information networks in a polychronic society.
If an American responds to a foreign time system as if it were his own, he does so at his own risk. The meaning of being late, being kept waiting, or missing appointments in a polychronic culture is simply not the same as it is in the United States.
Information Flow: Is It Fast or Slow and Where Does It Go?
The rate of information flow is measured by how long it takes a message intended to produce an action to travel from one part of an organization to another and for that message to release the desired response. Cultural differences in information flow are often the greatest stumbling blocks to international understanding. Every executive doing business in a foreign land should know how information is handled – where it goes and whether it flows easily through the society and the business organization, or whether it is restricted to narrow channels because of compartmentalization.
Information flow is a concept which may seem nebulous and abstract at first; it will only become apparent to those who have conditioned themselves to look for it. Its results, however, are quite easily seen. In some cultures, such as the French, the Japanese and the Spanish, information spreads rapidly and moves almost as if it had a life of its own. In other countries, such as the United States, Germany, and Switzerland, information is highly focused, compartmentalized, and controlled, and, therefore, not apt to flow freely.
Those who use information as an instrument of "command and control" and who build their planning on controlling information are in for a rude shock in Japan where there are no secrets. Different strategies are required, and executives are well advised to adapt to the rapid flow of information rather than to try to control its flow the way we do in the United States. Clearly this calls for a complete revamping of all information strategies—both internal and external.
In high-context cultures, where people are spatially involved with each other, information flows freely. As people are already highly contexted and therefore don’t need to be briefed in much detail for each transaction, the emphasis is on stored rather than on transmitted information. Furthermore, channels are seldom overloaded because people stay in constant contact; therefore, the organizational malady of "information overload" is rare. Schedules and screening (as in the use of private offices) are avoided because they interfere with this vital contact. Interpersonal contacts take precedence over everything else. There are two primary functions at a Japanese meeting, and therefore, two primary expectations: to context everybody in order to open up the information channels and determine whether the group can work together and to appraise the chances of coming to an agreement in the future. The drive to stay in touch and to keep up to date in high-context cultures is very strong. Because the cultures are also characteristically high-information-flow cultures, being out of touch means that essentially one ceases to exist. This is experienced by high-context Japanese who are overseas for long periods and who recognize the crucial importance of keeping in touch. These Japanese make every effort to return home frequently enough to maintain their place in people’s minds and to keep themselves up to date on the latest information.
Organizations where information flows slowly are familiar to both Americans and northern Europeans because low-flow information is associated with both low-context and monochronic time resulting from the compartmentalization associated with low-context institutions and of taking up one thing at a time. In the United States information flows slowly because each executive has a private office and a secretary to serve as a guard so that the executive is not distracted by excessive information. The authors were once hired as consultants to a larger government bureaucracy in which there was a good deal of dissatisfaction. Our study revealed multiple causes, the most important of which was a bottleneck created by a high-ranking bureaucrat who managed to block practically all the information going from the top down and from the bottom up. Once the problem had been identified, an agency staff director remarked, "I see we have a blockage in information." In a high-flow, high-context situation everyone would have already known that this was the case. In a low-flow system, however, it was necessary to call in outside consultants to make explicit what some people had suspected but were unable or unwilling to identify.
Action Chains: The Importance of Completion
An action chain is established sequence of events in which one or more people participate – and contribute – to achieve a goal. It’s like the old-fashioned ritual of courtship with its time-honored developmental stages. If either party rushes things too much, omits an important procedure, or delays too long between steps, the courtship grinds to a halt. Action chains cover a wide range of events: mergers and takeovers, setting up joint enterprises or a new division, hiring and training personnel, and even an individual’s train of thought.
Business is replete with action chains: greeting people, hiring and training personnel, developing an advertising campaign, floating a stock offering, initiating a lawsuit, merging with or taking over other companies, even sinking a golf putt. Many bureaucratic procedures are based unconsciously on the action-chain model. Because of the diversity of functions, it may be difficult for some people to link all these activities in their minds, but the common thread of underlying, ordered sequence ties each case to the others.
Because the steps in the chain are either technical (as in floating a stock offering or completing a merger) or else so widely shared and taken for granted that little conscious attention is paid to the details, the need to reexamine the entire pattern has largely gone unrecognized in the overseas setting.
There are important rules governing the structure, though not the content, of action chains. If an important step is left out, the action must begin all over again. Too many meetings and reports, for example, can break the action chains of individual projects, making it difficult for people to complete their work. In fact the breaking of an action chain is one of the most trouble-some events with which human beings have to contend in our speeded-up technological twentieth century.
Cultures can be arranged along a continuum, from those in which motivation to complete a job (what the psychologists call "closure") is minimal to those in which motivation to finish tasks is very strong. All planning must take into account the elaborate hierarchy of action chains. Monochronic, low-context cultures, with their compartmentalized approach and dependence on scheduled activities, are particularly sensitive to interruptions and so are more vulnerable to the breaking of action chains than high-context cultures. In general, the higher the context, the more stable the systems and the lower its vulnerability to such breaks. High-context people, because of their intensive involvement with each other and their extensive, cohesive networks, are more elastic; there is more "give" in their system. Some polychronic peoples will break an action chain simply because they don’t like the way things are going or because they think they can "get a better deal." For instance, we once knew a monochronic architect in New York who was designing a building for a polychronic client. The client continually changed the specifications for the building. With each change, the building design had to be revised, even down to alterations in the building’s foundations. Designing and constructing a building is an elaborate collection of action chains. Interruptions and changes of the type experienced by this architect can be devastating in their consequences. When the Japanese break action chains, it can be very unsettling to Americans, because Americans are brought up with a strong drive to complete action chains.
The relationship between action chains and disputes is important. All cultures have built-in safeguards – even though they may not always work – to prevent a dispute from escalating to an out-and-out battle. Keep in mind, however, that these safeguards apply only within the context of one’s own culture. In any foreign situation where a dispute appears imminent, it is essential to do two things immediately" proceed slowly, taking every action possible to maintain course and stay on an even keel; and seek the advice of a skillful, subtle interpreter of the culture.
Interfacing: communicating one on one
The concept of interfacing can be illustrated by a simple example: it is impossible to interface an American appliance with a European outlet without an adapter and a transformer. Not only are the voltages different, but the contacts on one are round; on the other, thin and flat. The purpose of this book is to serve as an adapter for business executives operating at the interfaces between American and Japanese cultures.
The problems to be solved when interfacing vary from company to company, but some generalizations are possible.
First, it is more difficult to succeed in a foreign country than at home. Second, the top management of a foreign subsidiary is crucial to the success of interfacing. Therefore, it is important to send the very best people available, take their advice, and leave them alone. Learn to expect that your Japanese manager or representative will start explaining things in terms of the "Japanese mentality" which may sound somewhat alien and strange.
Cultural interfacing follows five basic principles:
An example of an easy-to-interface business would be the manufacture of small components for microscopes by two divisions, one in Germany, the other in Switzerland. The cultural distance in this case is not great since both cultures are low-context as well as monochronic, and the business operation itself does not involve different levels of complexity.
A difficult-to-interface enterprise would be a newspaper or magazine in two countries that are vastly different, such as France and the United States. Publishing is a high-context enterprise which must be neatly meshed at literally dozens of points, including writing, advertising, and editorial policy. The success of newspapers and magazines depends on writers and editors who understand their audience’s culture and know how to reach their readers.
An extremely-difficult-to-interface enterprise would be a magazine, periodical, newspaper, or TV enterprise headquartered in either America or Japan with a regular publication schedule in the other country. The cultural distance is enormous. The United States is low-context and monochronic, while Japan is high-context and polychronic. Japan is homogeneous, while the United States is regional and multi-ethnic. Japan is an island, the United States is a continent. The United States is relatively sparsely populated, while Japan packs 120 million people into a fraction of the area of our country. Such an enterprise requires great sophistication and flexibility at the top in order to succeed.
In organizations everything management does communicates; when viewed in the cultural context, all acts, all events, all material things have meaning. Some organizations send strong, consistent messages that are readily grasped by employees and customers alike. Other organizations are less easy to interpret; they do not communicate clearly, or their messages are incongruent. Sometimes one part of the organization communicates on thing and another part communicates something else. The cues around which these corporate and cultural messages are organized are as different as the languages with which they are associated. Most important, their meaning is deeply imbedded and therefore harder for management to change when making the transition from the United States to Japan.
Speed of messages, contexts, space, time, information flow, action chains, and interfacing are all involved in the creation of both national and corporate character. This except is organized to help the reader understand the subtlety and complexity of culture as well as the interrelation of its parts.
|What lessons can be learned from the careful observation and understanding of others’ history, culture and behavior?|
|What can you learn about yourself and your own culture by observing how others treat space, time, information and action?|