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Making Cultural Connections Through Chopsticks

March 16, 2016

Sometimes a symbolic nature of one action can have a huge impact. This is true in all cultures, but it rings even more true in certain cultures. There are what you call high context cultures and high content cultures. Most western cultures are high content cultures where what you see is what you get. Everything is out in the open and on the surface. You mean what you say and you say what you mean. It’s pretty straightforward and does not leave a lot up for interpretation.

In other cultures, say the Middle East and Asia, the cultures are higher context. It isn’t so much about what you say, it’s about how you say it. Many people struggle with interpreting actions and statements across cultures for this reason. In some cases, businesses and governments over react to the statements of another country or business or an individual from another culture. In other cases, businesses and governments and individuals under react to what someone is saying from another culture. Sometimes we don’t even recognize the message of what is being sent and shared with us. We can also experience rare moments where we are all surprised by a connection we make, even if not on purpose. 

Many years ago I was in Tokyo, Japan working on a project. As a part of that project I needed to meet with business leaders, business owners and CEOs. The meetings were being set up by the Japanese government’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

I’d gone to the business in the morning and the CEO was supposed to share a great deal of information with me. The meeting was somewhat of a bust even with the Ministry’s help. The Japanese culture has such a huge, profound impact; it takes a long time to build relationships, and Japanese businesses share information with those they have strong relationships with. So, needless to say, I was not being given any of the information that the Ministry had promised.

After a long, unproductive morning, the CEO took me to lunch. On a side note, he did not speak English very well so I had a translator with me. During lunch he became visibly upset. I could not tell if he was angry, frustrated or what. I could see the translator arguing with him, trying to calm him down. The discussion seemed heated, but of course I could not keep track of the conversation and did not know what was being said. After a couple of minutes he got up from the table and he left in a hurry. 

 At that moment the translator turned to me and started asking me questions. I knew one thing. I was the cause of this man’s sudden outburst; however, I did not know what I did. I learned the basics of the language, had studied the culture, taken a course on Japan, interacted with other people that had visited there, spent time exploring the culture and customs and somehow at this moment it seemed as though I made a huge faux pas. 

The translator wanted to know how many times I had been in Japan to which I answered one, this was my first time. She also wanted to know when I had arrived. I reiterated that this was one of my first appointments and I had just arrived a couple of days earlier.  So here I am thinking they are trying to gauge how much to hold me accountable for the mistake that I had made. I was hoping there would be some leniency for whatever mistake I had made since I had really just arrived a couple days prior. I asked the translator to share with me what I had done. She was trying diligently to avoid the question. 

I asked her to share with the CEO how remorseful I felt if I had offended him in some way. That’s when her demeanor changed. She said, "he’s not angry with you." I asked her then, "why did he just leave lunch like that, so abruptly?" She then said "He went back to his office to instruct his executive assistant to make copies of all the information that he was supposed to give me during the morning that he withheld." I was shocked. What happened? Why the sudden change? Why would he do that when he looked so upset or angry? 

So, as the translator and I talked a little more she begin to explain. She wanted to know if I had been to Japan other times because she was shocked and a bit amazed at how well I used the chopsticks. I explained to her that when I grew up as a child, my parents took me to various places to eat from different cultural backgrounds and when we went to eat there they encouraged me to eat as if a local or native would eat from their own country. 

As a result, when I went to Asian restaurants I was taught how and encouraged to use chopsticks. I then asked her why that was so important. She began to explain that his own grandchildren cannot use chopsticks because they had become so accustomed to American food, especially American fast food such as McDonald's. Here I was, an American coming to Japan, using them as if I had grown up with them as a child in Japan. He was so touched by that he wanted to ensure that I walked away with everything that I needed for the work I was doing. 

During that same morning, it didn’t matter what I said, I was not going to receive the cooperation and information that I had hoped for. However, during lunch, in that moment, what I did made all of the difference in the world. Unbeknown to me, I had touched the heart of that executive in a way that I could never have dreamed of and while I know the symbolic nature of communication in Japan, as an American, I underestimated it. I am thankful for the curiosity my parents gave me and for encouraging me to feel uncomfortable at times so I could learn other ways of doing things. It helped me learn to appreciate other cultures as I do. To this day, I am appreciative of that executive and all the help he gave me and the sense of fondness I developed for him. In that moment, I began to understand who he was and what he cared about and saw what we had in common.

This memory always reminds me to question and challenge my thought process, to look for my bias and begin to understand what someone may be trying to say from their point of view, as opposed to trying to interpret just from mine.