Some Caveats

Topic 4 of 25

“I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.” President Ronald Reagan

Before continuing with the specifics of this course, let’s cover several areas of understanding. There are both more reasons to dive in and boundaries for what we’re able to cover.

Cultural Misalignment

The American high-end department store chain Nordstrom once had a very short employee handbook, which was actually a card containing 75 words. In part it read, “Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” While that may be remarkably empowering for individual staff members, it may also be disastrous in a multicultural environment. An action, belief, or mindset that shows good judgment and prudent thought in one society might be grossly offensive and imprudent in another.

Think about a retail setting today. An elderly Japanese couple is in the States visiting relatives. They enter a large department store, looking for a hat for the wife. A young employee greets them cheerfully just inside the front door, while continuing to fold a stack of t-shirts. The Japanese couple stands and waits expectantly for help. The sales associate pauses after a few minutes, then approaches the couple in order to be more clearly understood. The young woman touches the wife’s arm as she affirms her desire to help the customers. She does not apologize for keeping them waiting, but smiles as she talks. The salesperson leans forward and looks the older woman in the eyes. Although stunned at a perceived lack of respect, the husband asks about where to find a hat for his wife. 

The clerk points in the direction of women’s accessories far across the expansive store, and notices the confused looks she receives. She kindly turns to find a male coworker walking toward them, and raises her voice to ask for his help. He responds in the affirmative, but is chewing gum. He doesn’t seem to notice the confusion of the elderly couple. He then turns abruptly away from the couple and motions with his hand for them to follow him. 

By casual American standards, neither salesperson is necessarily being rude. They are, in fact, being helpful and attentive to the elderly couple, wanting to be certain that they find the item they need. While the Japanese customers did not expect the employees to bow to them, their casual demeanor and the lack of signals of respect are unsettling and seem rude. Japan is well-known to hold customer service to a high standard. How can this divide of understanding be successfully closed? Yes, this is a minor example of cultural misalignment. There is often much more at stake when people misunderstand one another!