Communication that can bridge gaps in cultural values
I work for the Japanese subsidiary of Cognizant, an American company that is engaged in management consulting and client project support. As a project manager, my main role is to act as an intermediary between offshore developers and Japanese clients. At present, I am involved in project for a major Japanese automobile manufacturer. I facilitate communications with the development team, based in India, while listening to the client's needs. No matter where the workplace is, discrepancies may arise between clients and developers. However, when it comes to global projects, many of the discrepancies are caused by differences in cultures or values, rather than language. In order for a project to proceed smoothly, I feel that the work I do, which calls for concisely organizing information among different teams and grasping their respective views, is very important.
For global projects, what is essential to prevent discrepancies from occurring is to clarify the rules. If a person's cultural background is different from that of their colleagues, then it is only natural that the standards demanded by that person are also different. Let's say, for example, that an American developer accepts a work assignment from a Japanese client. The American developer may submit his work to a Japanese client as being complete, even if that work is not 100% perfect. On the other hand, Japanese clients typically demand perfection. This is just one way that discrepancies occur. It is important to get agreement before the project starts on things like project deliverables quality, time needed to address client inquiries, as well as adjusting the team's work schedule depending on local holidays. By taking such precautions, it is possible to properly set expectations across the team and greatly reduce the risk of discrepancies due to misunderstanding.
Of course, in spite of these precautions, gaps still occur. In such cases, I engage in conversations time and again with all parties and make an effort to find points that every can agree to. I try to smooth communication through several means, such as gaining an understanding of the values of one team while considering the other party's needs, and, if necessary, using illustrations to help make my point visually.
My days living in a dormitory that became "my home"
I started studying Japanese at the urging of one of my father's friends. At that time, I thought that I would major in chemistry, so I didn't intend to study Japanese long-term. However, once I started studying Japanese, I realized that not only the Japanese language, but also the Japanese culture, were truly wonderful. This led me to start thinking about studying in Japan.
I came to ICU when I was a junior at UC Davis. I chose to study abroad at ICU because of an encounter I had with a Japanese student whom I met at Davis (one of the campuses of the University of California). This student came to Davis from ICU as an international exchange student and we became friends. We talked a lot about what it was like to study at ICU and the atmosphere there. What left a huge impression on me was his description of life at Second Men's Dormitory* where he lived at ICU. The idea of living that very same dormitory began to take hold.
*Second Men's Dormitory was demolished in 2015 and replaced by Momi House and Maple House in 2017.
When I began living at Second Men's Dormitory, it was everything I had imagined it would be. It was a very meaningful and enjoyable time for me. What I remember in particular about living there was the unique culture that gave the place a feeling of "home". In America, most college students live in a dormitory for a year or so before moving out to share an apartment or house with two or three roommates. Furthermore, it is not customary for students to take turns with duties such as cleaning the dormitory common areas. On the other hand, at ICU, most dormitory students live in the dormitory until they graduate, so there is a strong relationship among the students, regardless of their class year. At 2MD, someone was selected to be the dormitory representative or so-called dormitory president, and that person was in charge of managing the dormitory. The students residing in the dormitory took turns maintaining the dormitory, such as keeping the kitchen and other common areas clean. For me, the dormitory was not just a space where we lived, but a place where we ourselves independently managed operations. It was truly a place that had an "at home" feeling.
I remember well the monthly dormitory meetings that were held to determine the management policies of the dormitory. Everyone in the dormitory took part in the discussions, so there were occasions when the discussions would start at 7:00 p.m. and continue until the wee hours of the morning. It goes without saying that such day-to-day living experiences in the dormitory greatly improved my Japanese language skills, but I think it was being able to learn firsthand about the distinctive Japanese culture of wa or "harmony" that was an extraordinary experience. I feel that the things I learned from these experiences have been very useful in my current work for enabling me to have a deep understanding for my clients' thinking as to why they say what they say or make the demands they do. I strongly believe that were it not for my experiences living in the dormitory, I wouldn't be the person that I am today.
The significance of coming into contact with different cultures during college
Every day I have lived in Japan, beginning with Second Men's Dormitory, has been valuable to me. I believe that college days are an important turning point on the path childhood to adulthood. While I was at ICU, I immersed myself in a completely foreign culture where the things I had thought to be common knowledge no longer applied, and physically experienced those differences. This has had a tremendous effect on how I think and how I live my life now. The value of the experiences I had back then still holds true for students today. I know that ICU accepts a large number of international students. But the experience of living abroad is an altogether different thing. I very much hope that all students get the opportunity to study abroad and learn about other cultures and different ways of thinking that they have never before experienced. If they can do this, it is certain to change the way they think, and they will gain a real feel for how wonderful Japanese culture is.
If you are going to make the effort to study abroad, I think that you should live abroad for a year at the very least. I studied Japanese in America for two-and-a-half years before coming to Japan to attend ICU. Even so, for the first six months I was here I went through a lot of difficulties and was barely able to carry on everyday conversations. On the other hand, after I became proficient enough to communicate smoothly, I really began to enjoy myself. If you study abroad for only one semester, I believe it would be a tremendous waste if you returned home without really understanding the country and its culture. For myself, because I studied abroad for one year and came to understand both the pros and cons about Japan, I became more mature before returning to America.
When it comes to communication, the desire to get your idea across is more important than accuracy
What I would like to convey to most Japanese people is this: Try to relax more when conversing in English. Research has shown that the amount of information conveyed through words is only about 20%. The remaining 80% is expressed through the tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. But there is a tendency among many Japanese to focus on that 20% comprised of vocabulary and grammar. Of course, it is important to speak correctly. However, in a business setting, for example, if a consensus has been reached with regard to the quality and price of the product, a few mistakes in grammar during the conversation will not cause any significant problems. I believe "making the effort to communicate" is important. When I first arrived at ICU, I made a conscious effort to talk as much as possible. There were many times when I would tell myself, "I should have said it this way," but I can always apply that the next chance I get. You can't improve if you don't take on challenges.
Moreover, to communicate with people from other countries or work in a global environment, it is very important to have an understanding of the other party's culture and history. If you have knowledge beforehand of a country's history or its national character, you can get a more accurate read of the true intention of what the other party is saying. In that sense, in order to live in the society of tomorrow, I think there is great value in studying liberal arts in an environment like ICU's with students from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Photo (R): Plaques mounted in the Second Men's Dormitory Lounge of Momi House and Maple House. The lounge was made possible through donations from supportive former residents of Second Men's Dormitory, who also gave the lounge its name. (Mr. Neuman wrote the English version of the plaque inscription.)
Studied at ICU 1984-85 as an exchange student from UC Davis, USA
Studied at ICU while a student at UC Davis. After earning his MBA from Cornell in 1995, worked as a consultant and project manager for a number of companies. Began work at Cognizant Japan from November 2017 and is currently engaged in management services to facilitate smooth communications in global projects.