Do your Japanese colleagues drive you nuts? Maybe it's you, not them (or both)

by Nicolas Gattig

Last month, my wife’s office — most days a haven of dreamless industry — was shaken by what came to be known as the Trail Mix Incident.

An American employee had brought the snack in as omiyage (a souvenir). Twenty packs in a box: a mean promiscuity of chocolate, raisins and nuts, menacing waistlines all over the section.

“Our DNA said no,” my wife explained coolly. “We just knew this wasn’t delicious.”

“But that is childish,” I tried to reason. I’ve met the American only once and remember him as a dolt. But there is something about the situation that now puts him viscerally on my team.

“It’s American taste,” my wife says, digging in her heels. “This omiyage was strange.”

Japanese people are funny. At times the sum of their earthly curiosity seems to center around sampling new foods, and, with a daringness unobserved in other contacts with the outside world, they will explore almost anything once. Conversely, if the Japanese snub a thing they could eat, you are looking at violent rejection.

And the trail mix, they wouldn’t eat. Politeness be damned, the box languished away, ignored as the Japanese will ignore an embarrassment. Before long, the omiyage in the room has become a situation.

“I am worried about this snack,” the section boss allowed at a meeting. “It seems as if, somehow, nobody is taking it.”

With a show of deliberation, he pried a crumpled pack from the box and placed it on his desk. “We must open our minds,” he said. “Surely, this snack is foreign. But it doesn’t mean that we cannot eat it.”

Two weeks later, when called into the boss’ office, my wife sees the trail mix in exactly the same place on the desk — untouched and awkward, radioactive.

In the office, meanwhile, the box has turned into a mark of shame — a communication breakdown simmering helplessly toward escalation, a betrayal of understanding between cultures. “Don’t mention the omiyage” is a whispered mantra around the department. The American, aggrieved, has been calling in sick.

At last, faces are saved by the cleaner. Her husband is foreign — a Canadian, the last hope for peace in a world full of silent hurt. He is interested in the trail mix and, anyway, his waistline is shot. Soon, pack after pack is siphoned off the offending box until, one day, mercifully, the whole thing disappears altogether. With a sigh of relief, the office returns to its dreamless normalcy.

No one quite understands what has happened. How can Japanese people, considerate to a fault in most social interactions, coldly spurn an extended gift? And can your DNA really reject foreign foods?

“Nature and nurture interact in complex ways,” says Joseph Shaules, director of the Japan Intercultural Institute and author of the new book “The Intercultural Mind: Connecting Culture, Cognition and Global Living.”

Shaules doesn’t blame our genetic coding, pointing out that it differs between individuals and not races. Instead, he cites research that shows how culture — along with heredity and social environment — shapes our neurobiological processes.

“Our brain is deeply influenced by our cultural background and has some built-in unconscious biases,” explains Shaules. “At some fundamental level of brain functioning, we may react like the family dog that is barking to keep strangers away from the yard. It’s an unconscious threat response. We are defending psychological territory.”

Thus, as we fancy ourselves to be rational, objective thinkers, we may in fact merely follow our cultural conditioning. The Trail Mix Incident — where such conditioning trumped Japanese social etiquette — seemed to me quite absurd, until a row in my own office showed the defense of territory is universal.

I work for a Japanese corporation that has native and foreign staff collaborating on English education, in a spirit of cross-cultural understanding based on personal and professional esteem. The rest of the time, we’re driving each other bananas.

Never mind the pet peeves such as orgies of inefficiency, and the fuss over details while the big picture is on fire. No, siree — after years of sighing compliance, what finally drove the foreign staff on the barricades was a timid request in a meeting.

“We understand Westerners don’t work on the weekend, like Japanese,” the manager says amid shuffling excuses. “But you know, there are many projects, and some of them …” he consults his dictionary, “uh, remain embryonic. So I’m wondering if you could somewhat adjust your work hours to a … more Japanese style?”

Red flags go up in unison. Adjust to a Japanese work style!? To the expatriate mind, ever vulnerable to paranoia, ever guarded against subtle conspiracy and the first sign of indoctrination, this is code for being sold into slavery. Call it crybaby Western entitlement, but we will stand in defense of white privilege.

The following Friday, the whole foreign staff makes a point of finishing on the dot, dropping reports mid-sentence and leaving the natives to their overtime. We don’t feel bad, as it rubs in our superior efficiency. Almost out the door, a British man quips: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” We think it’s terribly clever and snicker.

Enhancing hostilities, we next insist on using English exclusively in the office. If language is power, one might as well employ it as a weapon. With a cruel sense of glee, we watch the manager straining to communicate as he outlines a new high-school project, a grammar lesson themed “Monkeys in the News.”

“Excuse me, could you repeat that? The part where the monkeys escape and we explain the past tense progressive?”

The lines have been drawn. It is ethnocentric entrenchment, an assertion of self happening daily in cross-cultural encounters, at work and in private. So here we are, too — more dogs barking to defend their territory.

“In a way, bias and ethnocentrism are normal — we naturally see things as ‘us and them,’ ” explains Shaules, who researches cultural adaptation issues. “And when we have bad experiences, we get defensive. It is a raising of barriers, and some things may be non-negotiable.”

The key to cross-cultural harmony, Shaules says, lies in being empathetic, in humanizing the frustrating other. As we divest in our old identity and allow our self to expand, we actually have less to defend. It can be freeing.

“When you see relationships as a zero-sum game, it creates conflict,” says Shaules. “Likewise, when a Japanese person wishes a foreigner were ‘more Japanese,’ you need enough local knowledge to understand how reasonable that person is being. It is hard for a foreigner, because you’re constantly in a position of not having enough local knowledge. The burden falls heavily on foreigners who try to adapt. But then it typically falls on the outsider. It is naive to think otherwise.”

We are now considering this empathy thing in my office. But if they do touch the non-negotiable in the form of our cherished weekends, it’ll be back to open opposition. I just saw this sale for trail mix on the Internet …

Nicolas Gattig is a writer and intercultural communication coach. He can be reached at coachgattig@yahoo.com. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to Japan. Your comments and ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp