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May 30, 2004

We all have the same understanding - right?

You hold a long, long meeting. You spend hours getting everyone to participate, voice their opinions, discuss and debate. You leave no aspect of the deal unexamined. Everyone's exhausted, but they all shake hands, commit to implementing the agreement as soon as they fly home, and leave smiling.

Then, a few days, weeks, or months later, you begin to suspect that things are going astray. Everyone claims to be doing exactly what was agreed to, but somehow their 'understanding' of the agreement is very, very different from other participants.

What's going on?

Here's one take on it. Although this example is based on cross cultural differences, it applies just as well to a group that is made up of just one culture. I ran across this simple test in a newspaper article back around 1983. Unfortunately, I have long since lost the original article and can't give the author well deserved credit. I've applied this test to mixed groups of Japanese and foreign managers over the past twenty years, and the results are amazingly consistent.

First, I explain some of the background behind Japanese kanji. The fact that they were originally pictographs - rough drawings of objects like the sun, moon, water, etc. The Chinese kanji were then borrowed and modified by the Japanese.

This is the Japanese kanji for 'field' like a rice paddy. It's kind of easy to imagine how the original shape was developed by looking at a real rice field, especially looking down from a hillside.

I always make sure to check to see if everyone understands the concept. If they have any questions, then it's important to take the time to clarify before proceeding.

Then I introduce the kanji for 'power'. You can easily see the strength represented by the character, in many ways like a muscular arm or powerful leg.

Again, I take the time to confirm everyone has the same understanding.

The next step is to explain how the combination of the two kanji characters form the kanji for 'man'. Easy to understand - man is the 'power' of the 'rice field'. It's man (or more often woman) that lays out the fields, does the plowing, planting, and harvests the rice.

Everyone is still on the same page and has the same understanding....

The Test:

So, kanji started off as pictographs - rough drawings or sketches of things or actions. Kind of like Western stick figures used in simple cartoons.

Let's imagine for a moment that the Japanese kanji for man is a stick figure like the one at the left. Seems pretty easy and straight forward to imagine.

The Question:

If I ask you, for a moment, to imagine that the kanji stick figure is actually a walking man. And I ask you to give me your immediate impression, without a lot of thinking or logic, just your gut feel.

Which direction is the man walking? To the right, or to the left of the page?

The Responses:

With surprising consistency over the years and with hundreds of subjects, roughly 80-90% of the Westerners say the man is walking to the right while 80-90% of the Japanese say the man is walking to the left.


Everyone has their own explanation after the fact. Some of the Japanese feel that their choice came from the fact that they often write from right to left. Other Japanese feel that the kanji character looks like a man carrying a heavy weight on his back almost pushing him into the ground, so he must be walking to the left. The most common Western rationale is also writing style - this time from left to right. Another Western explanation is that the power part of the kanji for man resembles a man's knee raised to walk to the right.

All of that is fine, but they are all rationalizations arrived at after the fact. A critical point is that everyone had a gut level impression, a core belief, before they gave any concious thought to the answer. Left unexamined and unexplored, they would have acted on that core belief only to find that they were 180 degrees out of sync with their counterparts.

A Broader View:

Is this unique to cross cultural communication? No. The same problems and disconnects come up everyday in business and social settings even when all the participants share the same cultural background and heritage.

How do I avoid this type of problem? It's impossible to totally avoid this type of problem. It's a basic characteristic of human nature. You can, however, become sensitive to its existence, recognize it when it appears, and take action to get things back on course before the situation gets completely derailed.

All too often we focus on the surface level meaning of words that we use without questioning the underlying assumptions. Everyone wants the company to be 'profitable', but one group may feel that implies a higher share price or bonuses while another group may feel exactly the same word implies long term stability and employment. One person may feel that 'family' implies children, commitment, group membership, and a social infrastructure while another may feel the same word only implies a level of security or social respect.

May 30, 2004 | Permalink


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