Diversity Case Study One: Culture Shock:


Warren Oats was a highly successful executive for American Auto Suppliers, a Chicago-based company that makes original-equipment specialty parts for Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Rather than retreat before the onslaught of Japanese automakers, AAS decided to counterattack and use its reputation for quality and dependability to win over customers in Japan. Oats had started in the company as an engineer and worked his way up to become one of a handful of senior managers who had a shot at the next open vice-presidential position. He knew he needed to distinguish himself somehow, so when he was given a chance to lead the AAS attack on the Japanese market, he jumped at it. 

Oats knew he did not have time to learn Japanese, but he had heard that many Japanese executives speak English, and the company would hire a translator anyway. The toughest part about leaving the United States was persuading his wife, Carol, to take an eighteen-month leave from her career as an attorney with a prestigious Chicago law firm. Carol finally persuaded herself that she did not want to miss an opportunity to learn a new culture. So, armed with all the information they could gather about Japan from their local library, the Oats headed for Tokyo. 

Known as an energetic, aggressive salesperson back home, Warren Oats wasted little time getting started. As soon as his office had a telephone—and well before all his files had arrived from the States—Oats made an appointment to meet with executives of one of Japan’s leading automakers. Oats reasoned that if he was going to overcome the famous Japanese resistance to foreign companies, he should get started as soon as possible. 

Oats felt very uncomfortable at that first meeting. He got the feeling that the Japanese executives were waiting for something. It seemed that everyone but Oats was in slow motion. The Japanese did not speak English well and appeared grateful for the presence of the interpreter, but even the interpreter seemed to take her time in translating each phrase. Frustrated by this seeming lethargy and beginning to doubt the much-touted Japanese efficiency, Oats got right to the point. He made an oral presentation of his proposal, waiting patiently for the translation of each sentence. Then he handed the leader of the Japanese delegation a packet containing the specifics of his proposal, got up, and left. The translator trailed behind him as if wanting to drag out the process even further. 

By the end of their first week, both Oats and his wife were frustrated. Oats’s office phone had not rung once, which did not make him optimistic about his meeting with another top company the following week. Carol could scarcely contain her irritation with what she had perceived of the Japanese way of life. She had been sure that a well-respected American lawyer would have little trouble securing a job with a Japanese multinational corporation, but the executives she had met with seemed insulted that she was asking them for a job. And the way they treated their secretaries! After only a week in Japan, both Carol and Warren Oats were ready to go home. 

A month later, their perspective had changed radically, and both looked back on those first meetings with embarrassment. Within that month, they had learned a lot about the Japanese sense of protocol and attitudes toward women. Warren Oats believed he was beginning to get the knack of doing business with the Japanese in their manner: establishing a relationship slowly, almost ritualistically, waiting through a number of meetings before bringing up the real business at hand, and then doing so circumspectly. It was difficult for Oats to slow his pace, and it made him nervous to be so indirect, but he was beginning to see some value in the sometimes humbling learning process he was going through. Perhaps, he thought, he and Carol could become consultants for other executives who needed to learn the lessons he was beginning to understand. 

Case Questions: What specific errors did Warren and Carol Oats make during their first week in Japan? If you were talking to a non-American businessperson making a first contact with an American company, what advice would you give?

Quick answer:

Among the numerous errors that the Oatses made during their first week in Japan, the most significant was their failure to prepare adequately. Warren assumed that any activity other than meeting with the Japanese executives would be a waste of time. Working alone, he created a presentation that was geared toward American executives rather than seek guidance from a specialist in Japanese business. Carol also entered her job search unprepared. Both also came across as arrogant and rude.

Expert Answers

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The specific error that Warren and Carol Oats made during their first week in Japan was to rush in too hastily to business appointments instead of taking the time to research how business is conducted in Japan and how social and business protocols differ from those in America. The case of the Oats shows that haste makes waste.

The Oats hired an interpreter to translate for them. They should have also hired someone to instruct them about Japanese business etiquette. Many cultural norms do not “travel” well, and the American embrace of getting directly to the point is not acceptable in Japan. Had they taken the time to understand common Japanese business conduct rather than assuming that the American approach works all over the world, outcomes might have been different.

They might have learned that Japanese business etiquette instructs people to offer their business guest a cup of tea as the meeting opens, to drink the tea slowly and not rush into any negotiations. They might have learned about the importance of body language and that keeping one’s arms held straight down and close to the body is an important sign of respect in Japan. They also should have learned a few Japanese greetings, which would have shown their associates that they had made the effort and invested the time to understand local culture and customs.

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Both Warren and Carol Oats made numerous mistakes during the first week they spent working in Japan. Warren was trying to clinch a business deal but apparently assumed that business culture is the same worldwide. Carol was looking for highly specialized work but seemed unaware of Japanese firms’ requirements. Although they were pursuing different goals, both people failed to prepare sufficiently. They embarked on their projects with no clear strategy.

Warren is depicted as having a fixed idea of how time is spent profitably. He did not want to “waste time” in developing his strategy. Using his existing network before leaving the United States, he could have found and contracted with an expert in Japanese business with whom to work upon arrival. Warren’s eagerness to go solo and his unrealistic expectations of being welcomed by the Japanese executives doomed him. He failed to tailor his presentation and his behavior in the meeting to the style of his hosts.

Carol’s lack of preparation similarly impacted her ability to reach her goals. In her case, gendered dynamics also probably played a role. It does not seem that she sought advice from Japanese female attorneys, which would probably have helped her learn about firms that were hiring and were likely to hire women.

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Specific errors: Within the Oats' overarching error of knowing too little about Japanese business culture, their specific errors were relying on energetic and aggressive presentations, actively attempting to overcome what was seen as "insults" and signs of "resistance," and misinterpreting cultural style and ritual as "lethargy" and inefficiency. Their point of view, unadjusted to Japanese ways of being, led to frustration and irritation, with Carol Oats being unpleasantly surprised by her reception at corporations and with Warren Oats wavering in his optimism.

Advice to non-US businesspersons: My personal advice would be that it is often not critical for business people of other cultures to try to adapt to fast-paced, aggressive American business culture norms because, for some reason, American corporate culture seems to have taken on the mantle of responsibility for adapting to other cultural norms, in large part, regardless of the soil hosting the meetings. The mood of accommodation is demonstrated by the American emphasis on corporate education in cultural behavior. This idea of American corporate emphasis on accommodation to cultural differences is underscored by recent Supreme Court cases relating to cultural diversity in the workplace. Examples include the case brought by Samantha Elauf against Abercrombie & Fitch retailers and the case brought by Charlie Craig and David Mullins against Masterpiece Cakeshop owned by Jack Phillips.

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The biggest mistake that Warren and Carol Oats made when they got to Japan -- or, in fact, before they got to Japan -- was not doing their research. Every cultural mistake that they made was one they could have avoided by properly researching Japanese culture and the Japanese market, rather than assuming that being there would be just like being in the US. That said, they made a few errors that are specific to Japanese culture. 

For one thing, Japanese society tends to value indirectness and relationship-building over "getting to the point;" the opposite tends to hold true in America. By using their American style of business, in the eyes of the Japanese, Warren and Carol were both being overly blunt and demanding by trying to force their respective issues. They did not understand that how one does something in Japanese culture is more important than what they do, and certainly more important than why. Warren likely came across as impatient in his meeting, while Carol was likely insulting the executives she spoke with without knowing she was doing so. Because indirectness is so much in line with Japanese culture, however, they were not informed of their mistakes.

American style tends to be very much the opposite of the Japanese style. In the United States, businesses tend to value a straightforward and direct approach, and most importantly not wasting time. Meetings are designed to share what needs to be shared as quickly and efficiently as possible. Relationship-building is often done over the course of work or outside office hours, rather than setting time aside during a meeting or presentation to do so. If someone makes a mistake, he or she is often told so directly, either when the mistake is made or in private soon afterwards. Ultimately, however, the most important thing for a foreign businessman or woman coming to America is the same thing that is most important for an American going to another country: they need to do their research extensively first.

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