In an attempt to teach and instill good manners in me, my parents read me two books (repeatedly) as a child. One was What Do You Say Dear, by Maurice Sendak and the other was Manners Make People Nice To Know. The latter, a much older book contained drawings of well-behaved children showed the perks that came with being good. Evidently the manners I was taught through these books stuck. I always knew to thank my host who paid for expensive lunches and dinners. I was polite. I smiled a lot. My parents would be proud.
Mr. S., our temperamental Japanese consultant from last week was evidently not read such books. I realize etiquette differs from country to country. I respect this. Differences aside, I firmly believe manners and etiquette are crucial in business success whether the issue at hand is knowing local customs when dining out or being mindful of certain gestures. It was the latter; a certain gesture Mr. S. used frequently that got him in hot water.
It started innocently enough. When pointing to a line on a balance sheet, Mr. S. extended his long middle finger to point out a number. Eyebrows shot up among the Americans and they looked at me quizzically. I knew what they were thinking. The collective question on everyone’s mind was, “is this guy flipping us off?”
Now what? After several months of feeling as though this cantankerous Japanese consultant was flipping them off, an American executive cornered me after a meeting. I was almost relieved. I knew what was coming. It was going to be up to me to talk to Mr. S. about his middle finger.
“This has got to stop,” the executive said.
“I know,” I replied.
Fix it? How? Tell Mr. S. he had been using one of the most vulgar gestures in the U.S. for months? What if he knew and was doing this on purpose? I broached the subject carefully. Sure enough, he did know.
He said he was doing it as a joke. He said he thought it was funny. Great. Wonderful. He was surprised they were offended. Americans can’t take a joke?
“Evidently not,” I said and asked him to try his index finger next time.
He did. It happened the next day. An old-fashioned overheat projector was being used to show an old diagram of an electrical part. The image of the part showed onto the screen. Mr. S. stood at the front of the room standing over the projector.
“This, here,” Mr. S. said, using his index finger (at which point I almost heard a collective sigh of relief) “Uh, I mean…” and then he switched. Mr. S. pointed to the same part with his pinky.
“No, um,” and then the ring finger, and then the thumb, and of course, wait for it….. the middle finger.
“Yeah, this here,” Mr. S. went on and explained why the part was wrong, all as if nothing had happened.
I thought back to the books read to me as a child. Neither Maurice Sendak nor the book about old-fashioned good manners prepared me for this moment. What Do You Say Dear? I repeated Mr. S’s words as if nothing was wrong, knowing I would hear about this again later.
On this particular day, the score read Mr. S.: 1, Maurice Sendak: 0.
Amya Miller lives near Boston, Massachusetts and is the President and CEO of Lupine and Co., which offers Japanese interpretation, liaison services, business etiquette training, consultation on successful negotiation techniques and problem solving.
Amya also founded the Gaijin Group; a group for gaijins all over the world. She was born and raised in Japan and spent time in Tokyo and Hokkaido. She has worked as an Interpreter and behind-the-scenes liaison in Japan-US business for 20 years. You can reach Amya at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out more about at http://www.lupineandco.com/ and http://www.gaijingroup.com/.