Sunday Apr 26, 2009


The image below is an advertisement for an English school here in Japan. I shot it on a train a few weeks ago in Tokyo. I was struck by the piercing, obnoxious, pompous looks from those western dudes staring at, presumably, a Japanese person in some mythical meeting someplace. Nothing like scaring the hell out of someone to prompt them to take a class, eh? My goodness. Look at those guys.

Anyway, the text actually expresses an important concept, and it goes something like this: when you don`t agree with something while talking to these guys, you`ll be asked why you don`t agree, you`ll be expected to state your opinion, and, probably, you`ll have to defend that opinion. So, if that dynamic is a problem, many people just say yes and go along with the crowd in the meeting. I know many Japanese people do this in international meetings because expressing contrary opinions is done quite differently in English and Japanese. Westerners (Americans specifically) tend to be direct and Japanese tend to be indirect. But it goes beyond preference. Those styles are hard coded right into the structures of the languages themselves, and they are expressed in the cultures as well. There are exceptions both ways, of course, but the tendencies are pervasive and obvious, and a great deal of confusion can occur as a result. When communicating across languages, go out of your way to make sure your ideas resonate in the other language. Many times, they don`t. And you`ll miss that rather inconvenient fact if the other person is just saying yes. Yes doesn`t always mean yes, right? And there are a hundred different ways of saying no, right?

But here`s the kicker for me: this issue is also a problem within English; it`s not just a problem when communicating across English and Japanese. Many times native English speakers just say yes when confronted with aggressive people like the dudes in the image below. I mean, really, why would anyone want to talk to these guys? Especially outnumbered four on one. I think there are probably just as many communication problems stemming from command and control types within a language as there are resulting from distinctions in communication styles across languages. What always gets me, though, is why do these guys have meetings in the first place? They obviously don`t want other opinions. So, they deserve the yes they get -- and the problems resulting from that yes.

This is why it`s a pleasure working on teams that value open communication, and working for leaders who use communication to discover ideas and implement ideas. Human communication is an imperfect art. You have to use it as a tool to iterate so understanding emerges over time. Teams that don`t value this painfully simple concept aren`t worth your time no matter what language you speak.

Monday Oct 20, 2008

The Individual vs The Context

Harmony and China's dream, from David Brooks, columnist at the NY Times:
If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

Interesting distinction in perspective. I wonder how the Chinese language fits into this notion of context. In other words, how does the language itself express context and not individualism. I'll have to ask some Chinese friends because it seems the concept is pretty similar in Japan. In fact, I'm reading a book on Japanese linguistics that would tend to support this view from Brooks. The book documents how the Japanese language is used to create context vs how the English language is used to do the exact opposite -- topics vs subjects, passive voice vs active voice, nominalized verbs vs action verbs, etc. There are probably a lot of exceptions among people on both sides of the language/culture line, but the tendencies seem pretty clear.

Saturday Oct 11, 2008

Engineering Across Languages and Cultures

I had great fun earlier today participating on the cross-cultural engineering panel at the Pasona Tech conference in Tokyo (here, here). We addressed cultural, language, and career issues facing Japanese engineers as they engage employers and developers around the world. This is not only an interesting subject for me, but it's also an important issue since economies are globalizing and software development is moving to open source community development. Dealing with people from around the world every day is now normal. It's not an occasional interaction. So, having a sense of language and cultural issues is critical since these things pervade our jobs -- even if you work in the country in which you were born and even if you work in your native language.

Since I have an interest in China, I talked a bit about the changes occurring in Chinese technology universities, and especially how students, professors, and administrators are now assertively engaging westerners in English. That was not necessarily true a few years ago in China, and it's not especially true in Japan today so it will be interesting to see where those trends lead in the future. A side note: when I'm in China I talk a lot about what the Japanese are doing to build community here and how they contribute to communities in Japan and around the world (their contributions are substantial but many times difficult to find at first). So the learning can go both ways since both sides have a great deal to offer.

At the event, we also talked about different communication styles (face-to-face vs online) among Japanese and American developers. Again, both sides could do a bit more reaching out to each other in these areas. Americans tend to be direct and Japanese tend to be indirect, and this very obvious difference can lead to some rather interesting situations. Balance is critical. If you have too many Japanese in a given situation, it's too far skewed to the Japanese language and thought processes. The opposite is true, too. When you have too many Americans in the room there is too much English and American thinking going on. You need both to balance things. You should try to offer enough communication channels for everyone to participate at some level, while encouraging the bilingual people to serve as conversation facilitators reaching out to both sides simultaneously. I think Tokyo2Point0 and the Tokyo Linux User Group are good examples of communities who recognize this issue and address it very well. I'm sure there area others, too. This is how I'd like to work with the OpenSolaris community in Japan. If the community is built with an international focus as its foundation, then it has a good shot at growing large and connecting globally.

Many opinions were shared on the panel and at the nomikai afterwards and they all had validity. No single person has all the answers covering such subtle issues like these, and there is lots of room for humility and opportunity to rule the day. I look forward to the next cross-cultural engineering event in Tokyo. We should meet quarterly to continue these conversations. All posts on cross-cultural engineering will be here

Thanks to Toshiharu Harada, Edward Middleton, Gosuke Miyashita, Iwasa Takuma, Hiroumi Mitani, and Tomoyuki Sakurai for their participation at the event. And thanks to Shoji Haraguchi for snapping this image.

Tuesday Sep 30, 2008

Cross Cultural Engineering Panel

On Oct 11th, I'll be at Pasona Tech in Tokyo participating on a panel about cross-cultural engineering. Should be great fun and very educational as well. I love this topic and I live it every day. We'll explore how language and cultural issues affect Japanese engineers as they work and interact with other engineers from around the world. I'll be talking about my experiences in Japan, China, and India in particular, but I'll also probe some things I've learned from dealing with developers across many language and cultural barriers in other regions on the OpenSolaris project.

17:00〜18:30 エンジニア・グローバル・サミット2008


Open Solaris技術部
Jim Grisanzio 氏

原田 季栄 氏

TLUG President
Edward Middleton 氏

事業戦略本部 副本部長
宮下 剛輔 氏

岩佐 琢磨 氏

櫻井 知之 氏

美谷 広海 氏

Sakurai-san will be monitoring the panel. Here we are together from a previous cross-cultural event.

Wednesday Sep 03, 2008


Fascinating little article about the English word "I" -- On Language: Me, Myself and I -- by Caroline Winter in the New York Times. Really good read.

I didn't know where the capital "I" came from. I'm not surprised by the answer, though. The article says, in part, that the single letter, lower case "i" was just not hefty enough to stand on it's own and carry the significance of what "I" truly represents in English. So, scribes made it bigger. And it became a capital letter. Great story. And it seems reasonable given the evolution and structure of the English language.

The article goes beyond that, though. Winter suggests that capitalizing the first-person pronoun "I" may lead to excessive ego, and she cites examples of other languages that don't capitalize I. She also says that some languages, such as Japanese, make it possible to leave out pronouns altogether. Well, sure, but you don't really need subjects in Japanese, either. And in Japanese the emphasis is on the "topic" of the sentence, not the subject. Also, Japanese verbs are usually passive and/or nominalized and buried at the end of sentences well after all the context is explained in painfully long detail. But in English, a centralized subject performing an action is the focus right up front. And while English can structurally handle a "topic" it has no grammatical role and is generally left out -- just as Japanese leaves out subjects and pronouns and whatever else.

I'm not sure about the other languages Winter cites, but Japanese and English seem polar opposites to me. I also don't see how comparing the languages supports the argument that using "i" instead of "I" can make "our individualistic, workaholic society ... more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot." Japanese has a lot of what Winter is looking for, yet many Japanese people are workaholics, many express a lot of individuality (though not as much as the US), many are focused on money, and much of their famous humility/politeness is locked inside a rather rigid group structure with rules that would greatly stress the Western definition of community. Of course, many Japanese people are lovely and kind and genuinely community-oriented and all that, just as many English-speaking people are as well. It's extremely difficult to judge languages/cultures out of their context. Definitions of "community" and "individual" are expressed, perceived, and internalized very differently in the East and West.

Interesting article, but I think it goes a tad too far. I don't see why the capital I can't just be a quirk of linguistic history rather than a statement on individual ego -- and a pejorative one at that. Actually, I'd go further. I think it's perfectly fine to express "I" as a capital letter to reflect the centrality of a person articulating a perspective. That's how English is structured, and it makes sense in the context of that language. It may not make sense in another language, sure, but does that make it bad?

Tuesday Jul 08, 2008

Different Language, Different People

Are you a different person when you speak a different language?: "People who are bicultural and speak two languages may actually shift their personalities when they switch from one language to another, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research. The authors studied groups of Hispanic women, all of whom were bilingual, but with varying degrees of cultural identification. They found significant levels of "frame-shifting" (changes in self perception) in bicultural participants — those who participate in both Latino and Anglo culture. While frame-shifting has been studied before, the new research found that biculturals switched frames more quickly and easily than bilingual monoculturals. -- eScience News.

Interesting report. I buy the language switching bit because I see that affect personalities every day in bilingual people around me and also in my own kid as well. But I'm not sure I buy the notion of "biculturals" that much. True bicultuals seem rare to me or superficial at best. Perhaps that's because I live in a culture that has such a low level of diversity and mixes very little with the west, I'm not sure. There are many shades of culture within cultures, too, so it's difficult to draw conclusion that apply across larger cultural differences. For instance, I think it's reasonable to say that the distinction between cultures within Europe and the United States (where this study took place) are much more narrow than the distinction between the East and West. I don't doubt the study, per say, but I just question how deep it goes. I've met westerners living in Japan for 30 years who are totally fluent in writing and speaking, yet they haven't even scratched the surface of being Japanese, and I'm told this is quite common.

Sunday Jun 08, 2008

English Required

Every time I read an article about how Japan wants to make Tokyo competitive as global financial center, the issue of the obvious lack of English language skills here comes up. Every time. Here it is again -- Japan increases push for Tokyo as finance centre. I doubt China will make this mistake. China's economy is emerging now during a time of globalization, whereas Japan's emerged prior to globalization.

Thursday May 01, 2008

Crazy English in China

Fascinating piece about this guy Li Yang teaching "Crazy English" to huge crowds of people in China. His technique is rather unique, but I can see how it may have significant benefits for anyone learning another language as an adult. The larger language issue in China, though, is illustrated by this utterly amazing quote from the article: "Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States." Just think about that. Just think about how that changes things in the future with language barriers beginning to melt away and what means for global communications and global economics. Also, Ampontan has a detailed analysis of the article that's well worth reading and adds some interesting context from Japan.

Friday Feb 15, 2008

Cross Cultural Engineering

I had a great night tonight at an event in Tokyo at Pasona Tech right outside Shibuya. It was called Cross Cultural Engineer Party and was organized by Tomoyuki Sakurai. There were two technical presentations, a discussion of cross cultural and communication issues between Japanese and westerners, and some beer and pizza and open conversation. Wonderful experience. I met a lot of Japanese and western developers from various companies and from the Linux and BSD communities, and everyone mixed quite freely. The communication and cultural challenges between westerners and Japanese are pretty significant, so it's good to get together to specifically address them and move to new levels of understanding. The world is rapidly changing, and we need more cross-cultural communication and more diverse ideas. I hope Sakurai-san does this quarterly.

Cross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural EngineeringShibuyaShibuyaCross Cultural EngineeringCross Cultural Engineering

Flickr images here.

Saturday Dec 29, 2007

The Samurai and the Cowboy

I'm reading a really interesting linguistics book on how the Japanese communicate and think and how their language differs from the English spoken by Americans -- Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context. It's very much a Venus and Mars sort of thing since the two cultures and languages are so different. Instead of planets, though, the author uses the cultural myths of the samurai and the cowboy to juxtapose the two. It's a miracle any information survives this barrier. But it's fascinating to peel back the layers to figure out why. More on this when I'm done.

Monday Nov 19, 2007

Language, Culture, Community, China

Check out Stephen Walli's online presentation for the China FOO event in Beijing -- My China FOO Presentation 一起建桥梁. Very impressive. He talks in English (well, Canadian English) and Chinese. I agree with Walli's opinions on language, culture, trust, and community. In his talk he tells the story about the China Open Source Summit he ran in Beijing (here, here, here), and he gives a real quick sense of how he dealt with contracts and trust in a new way. I can only imagine doing what he did, my goodness. I used to run a construction business in New York, and my customer and partner interactions were based largely on handshake. You get used to it. But at least I had the same language and culture on which to base the darn experience. Stephen did it across a rather gigantic language and cultural divide. It all worked out well in the end, and it wasn't quite a handshake but it was pretty close.

So, could the power of community be used to transcend some of these obvious language and cultural barriers? I don't know. I go back and forth on this. Language and culture are so critical to a functioning community and the understanding of even the most basic assumptions. And although open source communities are surely growing in a variety of languages and cultures, that's not the hard part. The hard part is linking the communities across their natural barriers and communicating with understanding. That's where all the good stuff happens.

Monday May 28, 2007

Tokyo Financial Hub

The Japanese are responding to pressure from global and other Asian competitors in the financial industry -- Japan aims to reinvigorate Tokyo as global finance hub. But they will have to overcome not only challenges such as regulation, taxation, and transportation but also language issues: "Foreign managers in Tokyo often bemoan the lack of sufficient staff who are fluent in English." -- AFP

Friday Apr 20, 2007

Language and Globalization

Interesting. In a world of billions of people, companies are still having a hard time hiring -- Where Are All The Workers? Companies worldwide are suddenly scrambling to manage a labor crunch. It seems as we globalize, technical skills are critical to remain competitive. But just as important are those skills involving language and communication. Don't you agree? The issue comes up in this article but only way at the end.


« July 2016

No bookmarks in folder