Friday, April 3, 2009 by Dave Blum

Back in July of 1985 (years before scavenger hunt ideas would begin dancing in my head), I was a 22-year-old college graduate, about a month into a two-year stint as an English teacher in Shimonoseki, Japan.  Mr. Ueno, my boss and mentor, was giving me final instructions before sending me out on my first team-teaching assignment at a nearby junior high school.

Ueno-san:  “Debido…please do whatever Katsura-san, the school’s regular English teacher, wants you to do.”

Me:  “But Mr. Ueno.  When I spoke to Katusura-san on the phone today, he said he simply wants me read out loud from a book, as if I was tape recorder.  Surely I can push him a little bit to use my visit more creatively.”

Ueno-san (tipping his head to one side and sucking in air between his teeth):  “Debido…I do not think that it would be a good idea.”

Me:  “Well, it couldn’t hurt to try, could it?  I’m not a parrot after all.”

Ueno-san (more air sucking):  “It might be dificult.”

Me:  “Ah, but that’s the challenge, isn’t it?  Changing his mind–getting him to see the light of day.”

And so we went, back and forth, with me trying again and again to sway Ueno-san to my point of view.  Because I was new to Japan, I assumed that my boss hesitation was at least an okay for us to keep talking and brainstorming.  However, as I later founder out, in Ueno-san’s mind I was behaving in a terribly rude fashion!  It turns out that Mr. Ueno’s head tilt and air-sucking was sending a very clear signal that anyone in Japan would recognize.  In short, he was telling me “No, you are not allowed to do that!  Case closed”

One’s own team building ideas don’t always translate across cultures.  Because I’d failed to pick up on Ueno-san true intentions, he was left feeling extremely distrustful of me and my future performance.   This is not only true for cultural clashes abroad.  Organizations have their own distinct cultures and customs, as do teams.  Understanding and adhering to the cultural mores of your organization can go a long way towards building trust with your teammates.  Failing to pay attention to the cultural signs can really land you in hot water–and erode trust.