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Japan is like a coconut.

It’s not just hard to “crack” the language or Tokyo’s subway map—though that can be pretty tough. The hard outer shell of coconut cultures is harder for outsiders to penetrate in general. However, once you break through, you can get at the goodness within and be part of the in-group.

Other cultures are like peaches: soft and squishy on the outside, easy for anyone to get into, but with that hard pit at the center that makes it harder to have meaningful, deep relationships.

In global business interactions, peaches and coconuts often have a hard time talking to each other. Think of something as simple as a business e-mail: who you send it to, what kind of greeting you open with, what kind of logic you use to explain your points. All of that matters. In a hierarchical corporate culture—which is common in Japan—who you send the email to and who you cc on the email can be critical, especially if there is a significant gap in seniority between the sender and recipient. To those of us from a more egalitarian culture, this can pose a challenge. 

So how do we crack that coconut? How do you live, study, or work in Japan when you’re non-Japanese? Or how do you get to the peach pit if you’re living in a peach culture? More broadly, what can any of us do to communicate more effectively across cultures?

There are three steps you can take to gain cross-cultural fluency: 
1. Self-analyze to understand your own behavior
2. Compare your behaviors to the norms in your new culture and identify large gaps
3. Stretch your behaviors to bridge those gaps

Know yourself, know the gaps

We each come from our own culture and upbringing, which have given us conscious and subconscious assumptions about how to behave, what is considered common sense, what is considered the “right” behavior. Here in Japan, there is a myth of cultural homogeneity, but looking beyond the stereotypical divides of Tokyo vs. Osaka, rural Japan vs. urban Japan—people are first and foremost individuals.

National culture influences each of us—but it does not define us.

So if we can’t use national cultures to help define our behaviors, what can we do? We need to get inside our own heads, do a bit of self-analysis to figure out how we function, and look at specific business behaviors which pose challenges for us.

Luckily, there are existing tools and frameworks which can help us to do this.

We can use these frameworks to evaluate ourselves and the characteristics of new cultures to identify gaps.

An excellent summary of the facets which define national cultures can be found in INSEAD professor Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map, as well as her online tools. We can use culture maps to identify how far we are from other cultures in specific business situations, but this all begins with self-awareness. We can’t identify how to adapt without first knowing where we are starting from. To identify specific challenges we face in our new culture, we need to look at the specific situations we are facing—emails, meetings, negotiations, and more.

Stretch to bridge the gaps

Once you have identified the gaps between your behavior and a particular culture, it’s time to stretch your behavior to allow yourself to function more effectively. The key word is “stretch.” To adapt and function better in a different culture, you should not change who you are.

To adapt and function better in a different culture, you should not change who you are.

It’s important here to focus on changing behaviors, but not changing yourself. In his book Global Dexterity, Brandeis University professor Andy Molinsky describes how we each have a natural comfort zone for a given behavior, and how we can stretch that comfort zone to overlap with the norms of a different culture.

We can adapt by using our existing behaviors without needing to change our core values.

The GLOBIS Experience

In September 2016, GLOBIS University welcomed 30 students into its Full-Time MBA program. Those students are a hugely diverse group representing 15 countries with quite different national cultures, but they’ll spend the next year working together and debating in class as teams.

To help give them a head start becoming a functional team, I ran a half-day cross-cultural workshop with them. Over an afternoon, we looked at behaviors as a group and as individuals to identify any cross-cultural gaps and help develop a strong class culture. The feedback was great—the students’ awareness of cultural differences increased, and they began to see their own cultural assumptions, potential challenges, and the necessity of stretching their behavior. All of this was designed to help them study together and experience life in Japan more broadly.

The diverse viewpoints of such a group lead to a level of innovation and creativity impossible in a monocultural environment.

To leverage that diversity, it is first necessary to clear gaps which separate us and adapt our behaviors to work more effectively. Then all of us, coconuts and peaches, can enjoy the fruits of cross-cultural work. 

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