Give me that orange juice!!!

By Rika Asaoka

The need for the adaptation of an alternative cultural communication style to achieve a business goal is quite easily acknowledged and understood. However, to execute it is much more complex. Merely having the knowledge of cultural differences is not good enough.

I couldn’t even get that glass of orange juice.

First night at dinner with my American host family many years ago, my host mother asked me, “Do you want a glass of orange juice with your dinner?”. Spontaneously, automatically and in less than a second, I said, “NO, THANK YOU” without giving it any thought. She said something like “Ok, then I’ll just get you a glass of water”. That night I had dinner with all my host family who were having orange juice, while I had a glass of water in front of me. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it but I felt excluded and thought “Never mind, I will have orange juice tomorrow.” The next night came, and my host mother asked me again, “Do you want a glass of orange juice, Rika?” “NO, THANK YOU.” That’s right, I said “No”, AGAIN!!! Yes, I had a glass of water AGAIN. I felt like banging my head on the wall when my host mother handed me a glass of water. I kept thinking why I couldn’t say “Yes, please”. I learned and knew that in Western culture, I needed to speak my mind.

Our exchange of question and answer followed by my not-so-satisfied feeling continued for a couple of days. Then, the night came, I was determined and focused to just say “YES”. Dinner was prepared, and my host mother asked, “Are you sure you don’t want orange juice?”, “YES” I said. I stared at the glass of water in my hand feeling defeated. I wondered why she couldn’t just give me the orange juice and why she had to ask me. Wasn’t it obvious that it was nice for me to have orange juice?

In Japanese culture, a gentle, repeated turning down of an offer is considered etiquette. Also, the sentence asking me if I WANT it or NOT was a tricky question to answer because I was taught that one should consider what the other person wants rather than what I want. “WE culture and not I culture” If my host mother was to give me orange juice, apple juice or whatever without asking me, I would have just accepted gratefully and felt contented. People normally offer things without asking in Japan, by understanding the context; age, situation, circumstances, whether the day is hot, or cold, late at night or early in the morning or you seem tired etc. They seldom asked me if I wanted something or not. They often said, “Let’s…”, and I agreed. I was taught to gratefully accept whatever I was given by people with higher statuses than me. That was the culture I grew up with. I was interested in Western culture and had some understanding of it. But the uncomfortable, uneasy feeling associated with the sentence, “Do you want…?” and “I WANT orange juice” was undeniable.

In the scenario

I could have:

  • Explained to my host mother that turning down an offer first is etiquette in Japan and I may turn it down even when I want something
  • Ask my host mother to ask me few more times and ensure/confirm I mean it
  • I could have put the sentence into a question form “Can I please have orange juice?”. In that way, I was not expressing/demanding what I wanted but rather I was asking for permission, hence it would have been easier to say.

My host mother could have:

  • Asked me a few times more to ensure I meant it or encouraged me to join in to have some sort of drink
  • Paid attention to non-verbal signals and cues
  • Given options: orange juice or apple juice? (This makes it easier to choose than expressing “wants”)
  • Given me an empty glass and instruct me to go and get my own drink (instruction and action)
  • Asked me if I like orange juice or apple juice

Looking back, I think if my host mother came to Japan, she would have been given all sorts of drinks that she may not have wanted. Would she like that? I don’t think so. She would prefer to be asked what she wanted. And if she asked for what she wanted directly without being asked, she may even have been considered excessively outspoken or rude.

Having the repertoire of different communication styles is crucial in business and in diplomatic relations. It is to our advantage to be aware and to pay attention to the preferred communication style of the person we are communicating with across cultures.  We subconsciously communicate in our usual preferred way and expect others to communicate in a similar way. However, other people’s preferred usual styles may be totally different, and their ways are as equally valid as our own.

Having a higher intercultural communication competency achieves higher business performance, better outcomes and more fruitful diplomatic relations.

Do you want to communicate effectively across cultures? Do you want me to help you? Did I hear “Yes, please”?