“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 isn’t as good as 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 helps 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 University was establishing 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 differences and shared common ground.
As a believer in cross-cultural communication, I’ve made it a family rule for all my children to spend 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, and he showed it. His straightforward, 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.
Cross-cultural communication is not just about talking. It’s 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 foreign 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. My experiences in Australia certainly became a lifelong asset.
Many years later, 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 Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) in Asia and the first Asian on their international board. I represented Asia and all its cultural diversity in a global forum, which called for 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 a word, relatable—you will be.
If you want to be a good leader in an international context, you need to start young. Get your deep immersion experience abroad in your teens, and build on that by following the 3 steps above.
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 is one of the most valuable intangible assets that anyone can have.
And if you disagree, I’m quite happy to rugby-tackle you to settle the issue!