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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.

Food Shock

After teaching an English lesson, we five women–three Japanese, one Taiwanese and I—shared brunch together. Two of the women have school-age children, so I asked, “Are your kids having play dates with Americans?”  Yes, was their answer.

I know it’s no fun to do what’s normal in your culture and see the frozen look on your acquaintance’s face–I’ve experienced it often during my six years of living in Japan while my children attended typical Japanese schools for 5.5 years of that. I could tell I’d surprised someone if her eyes opened wider or could detect hurt by the slight narrowing.

Small things can mean a lot. Sometimes I haven’t known how much I had offended until the person stopped answering e-mails or phone calls–the exact reason for disappearance remaining a mystery.

So these days as I teach English to Japanese temporarily residing in the Silicon Valley, I do more than teach grammar or listening. I point out ways our values and customs do not match. Not because I think they should change because our way is better, but so they can have what they want: friendships.

I told the lunch group, “Since your kids are having friendships with Americans, you might want to know a few of of the customs.  For one thing, most American moms want to keep things simple. So a meal like this together would be considered elaborate, that means complicated.”

We were eating meatloaf brightened up with the yellow and white of a hardboiled egg inserted in its center; a sticky-rice pilaf, and a green bean casserole. Its maker created it from scratch, trying to imitate the traditional American Thanksgiving casserole, but she replaced canned mushroom soup with fresh mushrooms in her own homemade Bechamel sauce as well as substituring fresh green beans for frozen or canned ones. The result was far superior to what sits on my dining table alongside the roasted turkey. The mom of a two-year-old had completed these heraculean efforts before a 9:30 a.m. lesson.

I continued my culture points. “Another thing, when your kid goes to an American home, you don’t need to bring a gift, not even any food.”  Eyebrows shot up in shock.

“I remember the first time a Japanese mom brought me food when her son was coming over to play with my daughter, I was surprised. ‘Doesn’t she trust me to have food here?’ was my thought.”  We don’t bring a gift or food with us when it’s just a play date. If you bring something, it will seem strange.”

“Is bringing seaweed strange?” asked the moher of a first-grader.

I nodded yes. Probably she brought nori. Even my American friends who lived and ate in Paris for years hate nori. The husband said, Yuch when we offered them the dried and salted seaweed pervasive to Japanese diet.

For my own conscience and selfish benefit after our potluck lunch ended, I added one last tidbit of cultural information.

“Another thing, when Americans have a potluck dinner, a person who brings food to the dinner still owns the leftover food afterwards. She may ask the host, “Can I leave some with you?” But politeness does not require her to leave all of it. The host may say, “No, my refrigerator is too full” and it does not necessarily mean that she doesn’t like the proffered food.  No offense would be taken.”

I speak from my own experience of hospitality in California. It could well be different in Georgia or some other region of the U.S. In fact, Hawaiians follow social norms similar to Japanese rules in many of these situations.

When I rose from the table, I asked our host if she cared to keep some of the homemade tangerine cake I’d made.  She accepted and I split what remained in half, happy that I could carry some home to my husband, without giving shock or offence.

Want to comment on the culture of food giving in your own community?  If a guest brought a dish you didn’t care for, and then offered you leftovers, would you receive them out of politeness or not? If not, what would you say?

“Wasting Time” Discussing

“I was shocked by my first class at Stanford,” said *Junko, an articulate business woman residing in California short-term. Her husband is a visiting scholar at Stanford. “The way the students talked was so, so—” Wordless, she stopped.

“Casual?” I supplied. She nodded. Her shock conveyed much more than the word I supplied.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The book is rich with insights, stories and wise reflection. Its author, Susan Cain, has thoroughly researched, summarized, and synthesized decades of studies on introversion, extroversion, and sensitivity.

Cain discusses values that differ between American and Asian cultures and, correspondingly, their educational systems, in a section aptly titled Do All Cultures have an Extrovert Ideal? (Part III). Consider this vignette:

“The teaching back home is very different from here,” says Hung Wei Chien, a Cupertino mom who came to the United States from Taiwan in 1979 to attend graduate school at UCLA. “There, you learn the subject, and they test you. At least when I grew up, they don’t go off subject a lot, and they don’t allow the students to ramble. If you stand up and talk nonsense, you’ll be reprimanded.

Hung is one of the most jolly, extroverted people I’ve met, given to large, expansive gestures and frequent belly laughs…

So it’s telling that even Hung recalls her culture shock upon entering her first American-style classroom. She considered it rude to participate in class because she didn’t want to waste her classmates’ time. And sure enough, she says, laughing, “I was the quiet person there. At UCLA, the professor would start class, saying, ‘Let’s discuss!’ I would look at my peers while they were talking nonsense, and the professors were so patient, just listening to everyone.” She nods her head comically, mimicking her overly respectful professors…(184-5)

Junko, my student, encountered something similar at her first American classroom experience—quite surprising for her. If she thought students were wasting the time of the teacher and others, I wouldn’t expect her to tell me that frankly. From a Japanese perspective, that would be inconsiderate of my feelings—rude. Junko’s intensity implied criticism of the students’ discussion, at least in her initial reaction.

Since I’ve returned to California after six years n Japan, I’ve reacted similarly at times. I’ve sat in committee discussions wondering why, as someone strays far from the point, the leader says nothing. Back here now for fifteen years, west coast ways no longer seem so strange.

Cain’s book has lifted a weight from my shoulders. It explains my frequent sense of not fitting in socially. Inborn traits of high sensitivity, reactivity, and introversion are the culprits. Since Asian cultures value quiet, sensitive persons, it’s no wonder these introvert-honoring cultures have birthed my husband and many of the friends I cherish.

Quiet explores much more in its 271 pages. To see and hear an overview, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4

The book reveals how little American culture—especially business schools—understand the power and value of introverts, a rather sad fact. With our ever-increasing connections between West and East, we need that insight. Cain’s chapter on the varying perspectives of each can further mutual understanding.

Back to my student, Junko: I don’t believe she’ll harbor her shock and turn critical. She aims to adapt to customs and values of California. For myself, as a teacher of English to people of others languages, I aim to respect and adapt to ingrained differences. After all, it takes years, actually generations, before immigrants understand their host culture.

Knowing all this, when silence prevails after I ask an English-lesson group to choose between some options, I’m no longer uneasy. Several factors can be at work resulting in quiet. Some might not understand the question. Some won’t quickly volunteer their opinions for fear of imposing. I may ask each individually to find out their opinions. Sometimes I ask the group to discuss the question after I leave. They don’t want to waste my time. I appreciate that.