An Anecdote from Japan

By Leo von Wendorff, an EO Boston member and CEO of Virtual Knowledge Workers, Inc.

As a business owner, I get to do business with people from many different cultures. Fortunately, I had great exposure to international business professionals early in my learning years. One of these is our Client Relationship Manager, when I worked for General Motors, and I fondly remember her time in Japan.

She’s a smart girl, but no matter how smart or accomplished you are, a speaking engagement in a part of the world completely different from your own culture will be nothing less than nerve-wracking. True enough, on her road to success, she was invited to speak at a conference in Japan. This was the highlight of her professional career at the time.

In her preparation, she spent hours and days researching the subject at hand, but also immersed herself in Japanese culture. In a blog discussing Japanese-style speeches, she learned that it’s customary in Japan to start your speech with an apology to demonstrate your humbleness, that you’re honored to address such a distinguished crowd of professionals. And that’s exactly what she did.

She started her speech with an apology. She was, of course, nervous. It was her first time in Japan on top of it all. She had swallowed a good dose of stage fright when she walked up to the podium. She greeted the crowd in broken Japanese and continued her opening in English with the carefully crafted apology, demonstrating her sincere humbleness. So she thought. The Japanese audience broke out in laughter!

At that point her professional disguise took a heavy toll. She paused for a few seconds trying to understand what had happened. Needless to say, she was utterly bewildered. After a few terrifying moments, she carried on with her speech. When she concluded the speech, she received a standing ovation.

Afterward, she couldn’t help but ask what had occurred during her opening. She explained to her Japanese hosts that her research mentioned the importance of opening a speech with humility. Her Japanese hosts then responded in broken English, saying that his team, in preparation for her presentation, had researched American customs as it relates to speeches. They had learned that in the US, a speech is traditionally opened with a joke. So they laughed!

This is a perfect example of the importance of understanding international communications, and it’s a memory I’ll never forget!

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