All clients are important. All meetings are important. This is not to say all meetings are equal in their importance. Discussing the best way to put together an air condition does not hold the same social/political implications as a bilateral meeting. This story is about the latter.
It’s Monday morning at 8:35. Both parties are sitting in a large room in downtown Tokyo. The Japanese have greeted and welcomed their American counterparts. After a few words are spoken about the importance of this meeting, the host says the Director of the department, his superior, will come in for a few minutes and extend his welcome as well. On cue, a man enters the room, sits at the head table and facing everyone says the following:
“Good morning. My name is (insert name here). I’m the Director of the (insert department name here) and I have been in this position for two years. Welcome.”
I repeat his words. Verbatim. I did not omit, change, or embellish anything. I used his words in the exact order they were spoken. That’s my job.
Suddenly, he looks over at me, and next thing I know I’m the target of serious public humiliation.
“Lady! I’ve worked in the (country name) Embassy as the (title) for three years; I’ve been the (title) for the (department name) for three years and I’ve lived in (country) for seven.” The tall man, the important man, the person who holds all the power at this exact moment rips me in perfect, flawless English. The room falls silent. I freeze. Then my mind spins. Rage takes over.
Okay. Good for you, mister. That’s great. Clearly you’ve had an amazing career. The problem is, you didn't say any of this in your introduction. I silently call him all the names I can think of in the split second before I bow my head and say, “I beg your pardon.”
What should I have done? For some reason, I needed to be the target of public humiliation. I could have snapped back and informed him he did not say any of this and I was not given his bio to read ahead of time and even if I had, it’s not my job to provide his bio to the Americans in the room if he doesn’t provide this information in his speech. I could have made it clear I was not wrong. Instead, I chose to take the beating. I chose to apologize for something I didn’t do. I chose to take one for the team.
Or, did I? Did accepting this criticism some how affect the power dynamics in the room? Did he establish who’s in charge, who’s in control by making me the target of public ridicule within the first five minutes of the meeting? Did this put the Americans in attendance at a disadvantage some how?
To this day, I have no idea what that outburst was about. I repeated everything he said. I know this. I’m absolutely positive. The other bilinguals in the room confirmed this. They were outraged this man humiliated me like this. I was livid. Sure, it felt good knowing I was backed up by those who knew I clearly did not make the mistakes he accused me of. It didn’t help my position, though. I avoided him the rest of the trip.
Fast forward two years and I am asked to interpret at another meeting between these two organizations. I am sent the list of attendees, the Japanese who, this time will be coming over to the States. I see his name on the list. I freeze. Then my blood boils again. This meeting involves higher-ranking people than the last. Surely he won’t humiliate me, on my turf, in front of my boss’s boss’s boss. Right? I decide to make a call and give those who hired me a heads up.
“If he pulls another stunt like the last one, this time I’m pushing back,” I say to the woman coordinating the visit.
“I’m sure everything will be fine,” she says. I can only hope she’s right.
The day of the meeting I decide to let him come and introduce himself to me. This way I don’t have to say, “it’s a pleasure seeing you again” as I fake a smile and lie. The parties meet for lunch. Hands are shaken and business cards exchanged. I see him. He sees me. He makes his way over to me (my claws are secretly out, ready to draw blood) and he proceeds to introduce himself to me. I don’t know whether to be relieved or offended. He doesn’t remember me! Immediately my claws retract and I decide to go along. I start breathing again while my mind vacillates between pure rage (“how do you not remember the person you publicly humiliated??”) and absolute relief.
The meetings go smoothly. He doesn’t criticize me. He doesn’t correct me. He doesn’t embarrass me in front of important people. As we say good-bye, I can only wonder if he truly doesn’t remember me, or if someone told him the one he humiliated previously was going to be there again. I secretly hope, of course, he was told to keep his sharp tongue under control and not make another scene. Then again, truth be told, I’m probably the only one who still holds that moment of public humiliation in my mind with such clarity. He has long since moved past it. For better or for worse.
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/.