When Cultures Smash

By Zachary Everson
Not a lot of international traffic here. One interaction can leave a lasting impression.
Not a lot of international traffic here. One interaction can leave a lasting impression.

The treetops along the west coast of Japan had already long-since begun the cascade of harvest hues, yet my friend and I still had not reserved a location for our English-speaking community’s annual late-autumn pitch-in dinner. We organized many events throughout the year, but none would bring together as diverse a crowd as this one.  Home-cooked turkey dinner, once taken for granted by the Americans in the group, had become a near impossibility while living on an island that has for decades mistakenly treated KFC like a Western holiday tradition. The chance to share a bit of authentic home culture with friends was a simple comfort we came to cherish every year. In spite of our best efforts, no matter how many calls we made, venue after potential venue returned our inquiries with the same message, “So sorry, already booked”.

Just as we were nearing the point of weeping and gnashing of teeth, we found an opening. After hurriedly driving over to discuss plans, however, we learned that no one would ever be allowed to host anything even resembling a Christmas party at that facility. That particular rule, which they had inexplicably excluded from our conversation on the phone, came about because of one past dispute. Apparently, the disparity between what the Japanese small-town community center thought would be a Christmas party and what the lively Brazilian ex-pat community once actually held as a Christmas party was so unbearable that Christmas had to be indefinitely canceled. At least, they thought it was probably Brazilians. Different culture, at any rate. From the sound of things, they had engaged in an activity we foreigners came to nickname the “gaijin smash”. “Gaijin” is an impolite word for “foreigner”, and a gaijin smash is what happens when an impolite foreigner barges into an establishment and completely disregards any but his own way of doing things. What really mattered, the staff stressed, is that no one ever have a Christmas party at their facility ever again. They would not under any circumstances endure another smashing. Never mind that we weren’t part of that one ill-fated festa. Never mind that we were only hoping for a quiet dinner event. Never mind the conspicuous lack of any specific holiday theme in our plans. Nope. No Christmas. Goodbye.

On the drive back that night stars faded and time slowed as the Ghost of Christmas Failure led us by the arm and showed us the stern, grimaced faces of all the good people we were about to disappoint. Carols turned to cursing as an entire snowy village of period piece extras lined up one by one to cross their arms and spit in our general direction. Last of all, normally affable Tiny Tim hobbled himself up on his good leg and proceeded to wreck our shins with his adorable little crutch. “Could these shadows really be our future?” we wondered as we stopped at a traffic signal not but five minutes from home.

Anxieties of Christmas yet to come vanished from imagination with a screeching, hollow crunch as the driver following us failed to notice both the red light and the automobile between himself and the open road. Thankfully, my friend and I suffered no noticeable injuries, but it was clear that she would never drive that car again.  The adrenaline from the momentary shock stirred all the frustrations of the evening and somehow froze them all at once. Anger, fear, and resentment circled meticulously like hungry predators beneath a transparent layer of ice. Already emotionally drained and utterly knackered, one careless driver had shoved our dead nerves beyond Hades to the vacuous, chilly Tartarean depths below. So, naturally, when he approached to check the damage and exchange information, we did what many exasperated people in similar situations have been known to do.

We apologized.
We did not apologize from a sense of guilt. In fact, the police report would later place 100% of the blame on the other driver. We apologized because such humility is the only proper beginning to potential conflict. This was not our idea, of course, but rather a lesson from Japanese textbooks and the orientation program for our job. Apologies are integral to even the most casual of relationships in Japan. Even after a car accident with an obvious guilty party, both parties express regret. This custom struck hard against our Western sense of self-preservation. We had come to a complete stop at a red light. We clearly had done nothing wrong. Normally, to us apologizing would be an admission that we shared the blame. In our home countries this would not only be viewed as absurd but also might even cause some liability for us. Nevertheless, we followed the advice of our teachers, pushed back against our instincts, and greeted the man that had wantonly ruined my friend’s car with a polite bow.

We didn’t even finish speaking before his assurances of personal culpability overwhelmed the interaction. We bowed. He bowed lower. We were sorry. He was deeply sorry. When the police arrived he explained the situation and hid nothing. He not only paid our examination fees when we went for a check-up that night but also stayed with us until he heard the results. True to cultural norms, he called his workplace and his boss came from the office to apologize to us and sit with him. My supervisor and my friend’s supervisor were also present. A small community came together in a hospital waiting room to handle the aftermath of a traffic incident that ultimately would leave no serious injury.

What we had always understood as little more than an act of admission of guilt we came to see as the humble recognition of how an unfortunate situation affects all involved. This basic lesson on cultural differences helped us avoid friction during a potential conflict. We can’t know what would’ve happened had we not known the importance of apologies in Japan, but we can be fairly certain that the other driver’s willingness to work with us after the accident would’ve been affected had we reacted in a manner foreign to his experiences.

Simple efforts to communicate and reach understanding can smooth over many of the rough edges of cross-cultural conflicts. Fluency is never required. The mere conciliatory effort of recognizing the validity of the other side’s approach to the situation is usually enough. In our small English-speaking community we often directly felt the impact of different approaches to disagreements. Those who chose to approach situations with apologetic humility may not have always achieved their ideal results, but they did succeed in proving to the locals of our rural community that non-Japanese could be reasonable. Those whose chose to smash their way through disagreement, however, not only left behind a negative impression of foreigners, they ruined Christmas.

*               *               *

Wishing to conclude on a happy note, I would like to add that we did eventually find a community center willing and available to host what was certainly the largest gathering of internationals they had ever seen. We were extra careful not to resemble the sort of foreigners that force their own way, and the center welcomed us back every year thereafter.



Four Ways to Improve Your Constructive Feedback

Four Ways to Improve Your Constructive Feedback

By Jennie Li

Giving (and receiving) feedback is an important aspect of developing ourselves personally and professionally. However, it can often be a source of anxiety and contention, especially when presented without tact. In this article, we’ll examine some ways to help smooth out your feedback style.

1.       Preparation is key.

Like most undertakings, presenting your opinion well requires preparation. Thinking about who the person is, the kind of feedback you’d like to give them, and the ways they might receive your feedback are all aspects of being prepared. Giving a little thought to the issues you’d like to present to the person will allow you to present your thoughts in a more organized and confident fashion, perhaps even saving you from last minute tongue spluttering.

4.       Care about the person and the issue.

Our intentions manifest in the way we speak. The premise of constructive feedback, improvement through inviting other perspectives, speaks to me as an act of fundamental good faith. When you are able to emotionally invest in the wellbeing of the people and the issues at stake, your constituents will be able to see this through both your verbal and nonverbal communication styles.

2.       A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down.

Constructive feedback means giving a balanced assessment. Like writing a story, it is important to switch up the kind of information you give – hearing only about problems can put your listener into a set mode (feeling defensive, or hurt). The danger here lies in the fact that without any distinction between the kinds of information you are giving, the story is  flat, and your individual points are lost in the monotony. Sandwiching suggested improvements with positive feedback can make the information more palatable, and easier to remember as well!

3.       Don’t tell, ask instead.

Hearing feedback as a demand can cause us to raise our instinctive hackles. Remember, your feedback is an opinion and a suggestion! Ultimately, we are our own masters of our actions. Phrasing your critique as a request is one way of disarming the defenses, and it recognizes the power of the critiqued as the one to implement their own improvements.

How To Apologize When It’s Not Your Fault

CC Image courtesy of robleto on Flickr

By Claire Doran

“I didn’t do anything! Why should I apologize?”  These words have fallen from the mouths of grumpy children across the world.  Apologies are extracted from us, unwillingly, by teachers or parents who want to gloss over conflicts, and from a very young age we’re taught to associate apologies with guilt.

In some situations, it may be enough to keep two children from fighting with each other again.  However, apologies are also frequently used to “shame” and “blame” students, more of a punishment than a reconciliation.  Because of this, it can become very difficult for people as adults to give a heart-felt apology, or even recognize when one is in order!

In my experience as a mediator, I find that many conflicts break through when one of the disputants apologizes.  The situation transforms.  Instead of rebuttals, retaliations, and “buts,” the conversation shifts to apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  So understanding how powerful apologies can be for our relationships and conflicts, how can we apologize to each other even if we feel like the situation is the other person’s fault?  Here’s a bit of sugar to help the apologies go down.  And who knows, you might even grow to like the taste of it!

Let’s begin by thinking about what purpose an apology serves.  One is to demonstrate care and concern for the other person.  So, what are some ways that you can demonstrate these qualities aside from apologizing outright?

Show You Care: Inquiring about the well-being of the other person or their family can communicate concern and kindness.  Instead of walking past them when you see them, it can mean a lot to pause and say “Hi, I just wanted to see how you are doing today and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”  Even if they brush you off, you’ll know that you’ve done your part to try and make amends.

Remember Details: Especially when you’re in conflict with another person, it is helpful to remember specific details so you don’t come off as heartless when you can’t remember the name of their dog (which you ran over).  It all comes back to the truism: “there’s no such thing as being good at remembering names or bad at remembering names, you either care enough to remember or you don’t.”

Apologize For The Impact: Many times conflicts arise because we weren’t aware of the impact of our actions.  We may have thought that we were doing our neighbor a favor by pulling out the weeds along our fence line, only to later find out they held a certain spiritual or emotional significance for the person.  In these cases, you can always apologize for the impact of your actions.  For example, “I am so sorry for your loss of those flowers.  I can see now how much they meant to you.”

Apologies are powerful.  Through words, we recognize how deeply our actions can influence another person’s experience and emotions.  So if you’ve held on to a deep-seated aversion to apologies, ask yourself: “What have I missed out on by not apologizing?”  “What could my relationships look like now if I showed that I cared, remembered details, and apologized for my impact even when it’s not my fault?”.

Cultural Issues in Mediation Workshop

“Diversity is the collective mixture of similarities and differences” – Roosevelt Thomas

by Warren Chan, APADRC Conflict Resolution Specialist

As an intern mediator at APADRC, we often learn about others, but how often do we learn about ourselves? The Cultural Issues in Mediation Workshop led by Edith Ng helped me understand the kind of mediator I am, and how I can use my cultural background and experiences to help others. Cultural issues often arise during mediation; however, by being aware of the different layers of diversity and exploring the commonality of our experiences, we can eliminate our unconscious assumptions. Edith brings us through a thought-provoking process of self realization.

The workshop helped me identify my mediation style. I am a direct communicator and I avoid expressing strong emotions. This type of mediation style is not always compatible with others and may further complicate the matter. Through the interactive workshop exercises such as constructive listening, I was able to reflect on the meaning of events and ideas of others and by utilizing strategic questioning, I can  engage innovative thinking between the parties.

Other attendees of the Workshop include the Center of Civic Mediation, Centinela Youth Services, Department of Consumer Affairs, and the LA City Attorney’s Office Conflict Resolution Program. We had the opportunity to share our experiences with one another and hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to collaborate on different projects in the future.