Where do you draw the line?

Posted on January 30, 2009. Filed under: Asian culture, cross cultural conflict, education, family, Japanese culture | Tags: , , , , , |

We all know about “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.  Culturally sensitive people will try to fit in and not offend members of the culture they are visiting. For me, this included wearing long sleeves and long pants in Malaysia, even when it was hot, hot, hot. I’d rather be too hot than insulting. I wasn’t comfortable, but it was something I would put up with.

But where do you draw the line? When do you say, no, I can’t abide by that part of your culture. It goes against my deepest beliefs, and I just won’t do it.

I was delivering a workshop on Communication Strategies for Asians Doing Busines in the US, and we were discussing the importance of selling yourself in American culture. You need to be comfortable, I pointed out, discussing your strengths without self-deprecation. What’s great about you? Speak up. In US business culture, it’s not bragging if it is an honest assessment of yourself presented in the proper context. (for example, a job interview or request for a raise)  You need to know your strengths and be able to talk about them openly and with conviction.

This trait is so valued, I said, that school children are taught about it in the context of developing self esteem. I then showed them a worksheet my daughter had in school.  It was a fill in the blanks worksheet:

The best thing about me is _________

I’m really good at ___________

I’m proud that I can ____________.

and so on.

One Japanese gentleman in the workshop, who had been sent by his company for a 3-year rotation in the US, said that his daughter had brought home a similar worksheet from her school. He and his wife were so upset, that  soon after they pulled her from the school and put her in a Japanese school instead. His explanation was this: He didn’t want his daughter (who was 6) to develop these types of American values. At first, he thought it would be a great opportunity for her to attend an American school, perfect her English skills and learn about a new culture. But he worried that when they returned to Japan when she was 9 that she would bring these values back with her. She would face all sorts of problems. These were not the values he wanted for his daughter.  Talking about how great you were is where he drew the line.

Learn more about navigating the American school system here.

Have you ever been in an intercultural situation where you said, no, I can’t support that.  This goes too much against my beliefs. What happened to make you draw the line?

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2 Responses to “Where do you draw the line?”

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Well, I’m not a moral relativist, so I certainly think that there are right and wrong actions. For instance, I don’t agree in discriminating against someone on the basis of caste, but there are people like that back in my husband’s country of India. I wouldn’t go along with it in the name of cultural acceptance. But this is somewhat hypothetical, as I’ve never been faced with such a situation. Guess I haven’t come across a situation that made me draw the line.

The values of confidence is not a bad thing. I have seen Japanese people being confident of what they are doing…. it is just that they have a different way of expressing their confidence with a certain humbleness.

The traditional way of thinking in Japan is changing now and lots of companies are actually looking for confident candidates with a global mindset and attitude.


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