The Toyoda apology, saving face, and cross-cultural mishaps

March 20, 2010



shame

Photo by bruckerrib (license)

Speaking of cross-cultural communication… Kay and I were talking about the apology the head of Toyota recently made on Capitol Hill as an example of cultural misunderstanding. Apologies are a normal part of Japanese life, but only lower-to-higher, or peer-to-peer, in terms of social position. When it occurs higher-to-lower, it’s a big, big deal. This was completely lost to the American politicians, who wanted more than statements. But for a Japanese person in authority to make such a statement — that’s going a long way.

(The Christian Science Monitor published an article on the cross-cultural difficulties of the Toyoda apology.)

The latest issue of Cutting Edge magazine focuses on “Having Difficult Conversations,” and one of the articles addresses cross-cultural communication in particular. It stated things I’ve had to learn the hard way, but never had clearly laid out: the difference between a “low-context” and “high-context” cultures. White American culture is low-context, valuing open casualness. Japanese culture, on the other hand, is high-context, valuing formal structures. The article raises the high-context issue of “losing face” and thus the importance of saving face — concepts that do not really exist in White American culture.

(If you’re not familiar with VineyardUSA’s Cutting Edge magazine, I think it’s the finest ministry magazine out there. Certainly the best bang for the buck, since it’s free; outstanding quality.)

What cross-cultural mishaps have you seen or experienced?



Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

2 responses to The Toyoda apology, saving face, and cross-cultural mishaps

  1. I have been loving this issue of Cutting Edge, too – and also found personally very valuable the high-context/low-context delineation. My husband who is Japanese, and high-context, used to always say to me, “Why do you have to SAY everything?” High-context cultures take a lot more cues from surroundings, body language, etc., while we low-contexters take it from the actual words spoken. Neither is right, but it sure helps us communicate if we know the “bent” of the other person.
    Loved this blog post, Jon!

  2. Andrea, it’s so funny to think “I get it,” and then discover that we’re still way off in understanding what just happened and why. …Well, it can be discouraging. But let’s laugh instead. 🙂