Willy Brandt once said, “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying from you, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” This quote has served as the epigraph for a number of papers on localization, yet it seems to me that the former German chancellor’s words only address half of the issue concerning our vendors, prospects and clients in the Far East. In a globalized world, and especially in the localization industry, one can even speak the client’s language. However, by going one step further and actually seeking to understand the Asian mindset, you will certainly be able to deal with Easterners in a much more productive way than those who are trapped in Western-centered thinking and acting.
Upon my return to Rio de Janeiro in 1999 after spending two years in London, I had the opportunity to travel to some Asian countries and was delighted by every place I visited and every person I met. During my time in the United Kingdom, I had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and I thought I had grown accustomed to experiencing different cultures. However, the Asian tour made me feel like I was on a totally different planet. It was obvious that the people I encountered could understand what I meant and we could communicate perfectly well, but there was something else to it. The way they looked at me, the way they structured their thinking, even the organization of their sentences (whether written or spoken) felt so different and peculiar that there had to be something more that I was not grasping at the time.
When I read The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why, by Richard Nisbett, I found a well-documented and solid explanation for my instinctive perception. The author, an eminent psychologist, supports that human cognition differs in these two regions of the globe for reasons that are related to various aspects ranging from social structures to educational systems. In the East Asian group, the author includes Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and other peoples on which Confucius’s ideas had a critical influence. Westerners for Nisbett are those brought up in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon cultures, whose early descendants learned from Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. The Confucian and Aristotelian views, according to the author, still influence the logic and perception of Easterners and Westerners of the modern world. In this groundbreaking study, Nisbett argues that Asians tend to have a more holistic view of any situation, are greatly influenced by environment and try to find a middle way between opposing thoughts in a fundamentally dialectic reasoning. Westerners, on the other hand, tend to categorize objects and people, consider them individually while disregarding the context in which they appear and use rules and conventions to comprehend and analyze their behaviors.
The Geography of Thought was a recommendation from Hideo Yanagi, managing director of a Tokyo-based localization company with which Ccaps established a fruitful partnership. Over a few cappuccinos in Brussels, Hideo tried to explain how acupuncture was being used to make sushi more tasteful. “Fish acupuncture?” I asked myself. He was absolutely serious. In fact, this sushi chef transformed a most unconventional cooking technique into a money saving procedure that is widely used by Japanese restaurants today. (For further information, visit this website). What about Kobe beef? Half a kilo of such meat can cost up to US$100.00 simply because cows are fed with beer and treated to daily massages! Before reading the book that Hideo had suggested, I personally found it hard to understand how someone could devise such ingenious ideas. I left Brussels both confused and thrilled. Today, however, things have become much clearer.
In a report called Quick Take on Japan, Renato Beninatto rightfully says that “we think, act, apologize and play differently than [the] Japanese.” He tells a story of a Japanese Project Manager who could not understand why they were facing delivery issues because of communication problems if his team could speak perfect English. Again, it is not only the language that can create barriers for a successful enterprise, but the way that each involved party thinks. Communication encompasses a much larger set of attributes than just language. And if e-mail alone does not allow you to convey an idea that could be better transmitted with the help of facial expressions, body language and voice tone, rest assured that the mindset of the recipient of your message will play a major part in any confusion you may experience. For instance, the way that Japanese (and most East Asians) tackle problems and tell you what is wrong is completely different from that which is practiced in the West. Beninatto further explains that “If someone [in Japan] says, ‘This is a little bit different,’ he means you are way off.” Yet, the bold statement that you are entirely mistaken could mean an insult, which must always be avoided, whether you are the sender or the receiver of such a message. Finally, “if you really are only off by a small margin, he will say, ‘You are almost correct’,” adds Beninatto.
East Asian markets are increasingly becoming the targets of global enterprises. This is either because they have a high per capita purchasing power, as is the case of Japan, or because they have an enormous population avid for Western products, such as China. Even emerging economies like Brazil have started to look East in an attempt to establish synergies and partnerships with these important players. The recent political and economic agreements between Brazil and China and the resulting developments for the corporate world prove that for both the Brazilian government and companies, the business possibilities in the other extreme of the globe are countless.
While these corporations need localization companies to help them communicate with their target audiences in Eastern markets, the responsibility of ensuring that deadlines are met, quality standards are secured and the globalized product is delivered seamlessly falls to those who hire the local vendors or find local partners. Namely, the global project managers and localization executives in this part of the world. We work in a multicultural environment and global economy, allowing us to adapt to different methods, approaches and behaviors. However, you will have a competitive edge and will be able to communicate more efficiently with your East Asian partner, vendor or even client if you bear in mind that not only do they think differently from you, but that this way of thinking, developed over centuries, is not something that can be changed in a matter of weeks.
In the US remake of the much acclaimed Japanese movie from which the title of this article was borrowed, Richard Gere is a bored estate lawyer who finds himself taking ballroom classes in a rundown Chicago dance studio in an attempt to get closer to the object of his desire, dance instructor Jennifer Lopez. The original movie is a much better accomplished piece, as it depicts the battle of a middle-aged, married man who finds pleasure in a relaxed environment yet lives in a society where public displays of emotion are avoided at any cost. But to detect the beauty and humor of such a battle, one must fully understand that for the East Asian individual standing out from the crowd is not considered a positive quality as it is in Western culture. As we head due East and establish business relationship with local clients, vendors and representatives, one must also make an effort to better understand and relate to these individuals. Or at least try to empathize with the fact that they think, feel and learn differently than we do. Otherwise, you might end up stepping on your Eastern partner’s foot!
My word of advice? Be respectful at all times and as humble as possible to realize that the world does not revolve around you or your Western concepts. The above reading recommendations can be a great start, yet the pure awareness that Easterners simply think differently from you will avoid not only confrontation – which is never desired – but also a lot of painkillers to cure your headaches. Finally, I sincerely hope that the fact that I have directed this article at my Western counterparts will by no means be considered disrespectful or prejudicial against my dearest colleagues in the East. If only I could think the way you do, I would feel much more comfortable changing the course of my text and addressing you instead. And for no other reason I am looking desperately for a Chinese teacher to learn Mandarin.
In Eastern and Western views of the relationships among self, in-group (close circle of friends or family) and out-group (people who are mere acquaintances), Easterners feel embedded in their in-groups and distant from their out-groups while Westerners feel relatively detached from their in-groups and tend not to make as great distinctions between in-group and out-group.
When Nisbett asked college students in the United States and students from mainland China and Taiwan, “What goes with C: A or B?,” the American participants showed a marked preference for grouping by category (cow and chiken) while the Chinese and Taiwanese participants were more inclined to group on the basis of thematic relationship (cow and grass).