And Now a Word from…: It’s Too Costly to Overlook Cultural Sensitivity

Photo of Nozomi Morgan
And Now a Word from…
Nozomi Morgan
/ Japan
A periodic column featuring a special guest author from around the world!


It’s Too Costly to Overlook Cultural Sensitivity

I coach and train Japanese and non-Japanese persons working in Japan or working with Japanese companies outside of Japan to find their authentic career and live their best life. I have come across cases where the importance of cultural sensitivity to their personal branding and career success has been overlooked. Cultural sensitivity is understanding and accepting differences between your culture and another person’s, and that these differences could affect relationships and the way we communicate with each other.

At 5:46 am on January 17, 1995 a massive earthquake hit the city of Kobe, Japan resulting in over 5,000 deaths and 300,000 people injured or homeless. Rokko Island, a man made island, was one of the areas that was heavily damaged. P&G’s Northeast Asia headquarters was located on Rokko Island and many of the employees and families lived on the island as well. For several days, people were unable to leave the island, and food and supplies were low. People would line up patiently for food and supplies, often times in front of vending machines. There was a line at the vending machine at the P&G office. Imagine you are in a line for hours to get a beverage? What would you do when you get to the front of the line? When one expat from the United States reached the front of the line he bought a total of four items, one for each of member of his family of four. His action did not leave a good impression in this office and the word spread of his misdemeanor. What did he do wrong?

In Japan, fairness and benevolence are values deeply ingrained in the culture. Even under this extreme circumstance, the P&G employee’s Japanese colleagues bought only one item and then went back to the end of the line to wait for the next opportunity to buy more so that others would also have the chance to get one. If only this expat had been more culturally sensitive and had observed what was going on around him, he could have easily noticed the actions others were taking. He was capable to do the “work”, but he was not capable to understand the environment in which he worked. His lack of cultural sensitivity cost him his career. Through his actions his personal brand was tarnished.

What would you do if you worked in a different culture? There are three easy steps that you can take to become more culturally sensitive.

  1. Do your homework before you go. Research the country and culture. Learning the local language is also a great place to start.
  2. Talk to a colleague from that country and learn first hand of the business and office culture.
  3. Observe! Be aware of what is going on around you. Keep your eyes and ears wide open. Don’t be afraid to ask when you don’t understand what and why things are done a certain way. It’s better to ask then to never know.

Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding the culture that you are in. Just being able to do the job is not enough to be successful. Embrace, adapt and see through the lenses of the culture you are in.

Nozomi Morgan is a success coach passionate about coaching and training aspiring Japanese bilinguals and Japan focused internationals to find their authentic work and life to live their best. Her clients benefit from her international background and 15 years of marketing and business planning experience in the advertising and corporate sectors with global industry leading companies.

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One Response to “And Now a Word from…: It’s Too Costly to Overlook Cultural Sensitivity”

  1. Teri Beckman says:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post Nozomi! Your story brings to mind the many times I have been overseas andy seen Americans be very unaware of the culture in which they are visiting. Of course this does not always happen, but I believe because our culture is so very individualistic in nature it is very easy for us to miss cues when we are in other cultures. It is embarrassing at best and deeply damaging at worst. Thanks for writing on this important topic.

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