Monthly Archives: June 2013

Asking for a Volunteer. Or, When the Words Don’t Mean What They Say

Imagine yourself a leader in a volunteer organization looking for someone to take photos of an event for your website. You put out the need.

Junko” tells you, “I can take photos for you, but I’m not so good.”

Would you take her up on that? You barely know Junko. Her name and accent tell you she was born in Japan.

Perhaps you’d say, “Thanks for offering. I’ll let you know.” You’re thinking, I’ll wait till someone who can do a good job volunteers.

Assumption reigns here.

Junko underplays her photo-taking ability. She presents her abilities with doubt rather than asserting herself. She hasn’t been schooled in the importance of stellar self-presentation. She assumes her offer will be considered, independent of a tentative or confident tone.

Unfortunately, many Americans would have no idea that Junko’s words are not to be taken at face value. It’s easy to blithely assume that Junko is not good at taking photos.

When the leader doesn’t warm up to Junko’s offer, she assumes that the leader has high standards and prefers a professional.

In reality, Junko’s photo taking ability is excellent. The leader misses the assistance of a gifted photographer because of not recognizing Junko’s reserve and its meaning in this context.

Americans did not always misread humility and reserve.

In the Culture of Character [prevalent until the 1900’s] the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public, as how one behaved in private,” according to Susan Cain. Quiet, p 21).(Above bracketed words are added.)

However, in the 1900s, the rise of industrial America and advertising brought on a sea change: the rise of the Extrovert Ideal (exemplified by Dale Carnegie) where people are convinced it’s necessary and good to sell yourself. The focus is how others perceive you and how to control that.

Somehow that revolution has not taken over Japanese society. Or some of us here.

In my book club I was told that unless I sold members on my book choice, it wouldn’t go. (I thought, I’ve read all their choices, why won’t they read mine?)

I don’t mind selling someone else’s work or choice, but as for my own—that’s very difficult, or almost wrong. Consider another situation: though I’ve been back in California for fourteen years, I wouldn’t think of putting self forward for a solo in the amateur choir I’m a part of. Only the praise and encouragement of the director has caused me to consider myself for solo work.

My own reserve is the product of various factors: temperament, six years immersion in Japan, and the influence of a husband of even greater reserve.

Not all Japanese act with Junko’s reserve. Nor are all Asians (Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese) equally reserved as Japanese generally are. But when you interact with a person born in Asia or any introvert, it’s best to keep in mind that the other’s words may mean something quite different from what you first think.

Navigating these differences can be a fun challenge! Successfully figuring out what people’s words mean within their cultural framework is akin to aiming to solve a mystery or win a game. And, in our multi-cultural society, we have much to gain from trying to understand people shaped by different assumptions through unclenching our grasp on our own.