The Invisible Culture of Gifts

The Invisible Culture of Gifts


The first time I ever went to Japan and a friend, Yoshi, gave my Australian friend, Vanessa, a gift. Vanessa responded with a big smile, a big hug and then immediately proceeded to open the gift. Yoshi’s face contorted; her body stiffened and her face managed to squeeze out an awkward smile.  Her silence screamed, “This is uncomfortable!”

Japanese communication styles are not predisposed to let someone know they have just offended. As a result, I doubt Vanessa knew her misstep. With all of the good intentions around giving and receiving there are still a handful of beliefs that surround both practices that may not be obvious to either the giver or receiver. What better topic to touch upon with the holidays right around the corner than giving across cultures.

One thing to keep in mind when giving gifts is that in some cultures, like Japan where gift giving is ubiquitous, you don’t open the gift in front of the giver. In others, like Australia, you absolutely do. In one culture, opening a gift can signify appreciation and celebration, while not opening it can seem unappreciative or dismissive. In another culture, opening it can seem a bit greedy or crude, while not opening it has an air of control and reserve which are valued.

Another aspect of gift giving that needs consideration is not just how you give, but what you give. In China, for example, scissor or knives signify cutting off a relationship and clocks and watches suggests the counting down of time, so are best avoided. That is not to say that if someone close to you wants to give a nice watch that people don’t do that, it is just a belief of which to be aware.

I had a Swiss colleague tell me Americans are thoughtless gift-givers. She said she had a closet filled with gifts that had nothing to do with who she was and that came from people that she didn’t really know very well. In her culture, she learned that you gift gifts to people in your intimate circle and you think very carefully about what to give a person based on their interests, likes and dislikes. Needless to say she didn’t grow up hearing, “It’s not the gift that matters, it’s the thought that counts.”

Some say in France it is best not to bring a bottle of wine to a dinner expecting it to be opened because the host will most likely have chosen their wine carefully to match the food and company. That being said, I have a friend who I visit regularly to whom I frequently bring a special bottle of wine and we revolve the meal and company around the wine. So no matter what you hear about gift giving when it comes to culture it is always best to remember, tools not rule – context is king.

A few context-based considerations include relationship, level of intimacy, age, appropriateness of expense and occasion. Also, employees have expressed frustration at not being able to give gifts due to their company policy in cultures that are very giving oriented. In these cases it is always best to follow policy and compensate with time and meals.

Back to Japan, when Vanessa opened the gift, it was a melon. Yes, it was a piece of fruit wrapped in the most beautiful box and paper that we had ever seen. Now it was Vanessa’s turn to contort her face. Her flashy smile went a bit crooked as her eyebrows rose in surprise. For the first time she was at a loss for words. She graciously thanked Yoshi who was standing there with a very similar expression.

Later while Vanessa and I were in the posh department store called Takashimaya we passed a bunch of melons that cost $75 each (and that was back in 1991)! They were wrapped in a similar fashion to the one that Yoshi had given her and it dawned on us that this piece of melon was a luxurious and expensive gift by all of our standards. Gifts mean a lot of things to different people, but in this case Yoshi had not only been giving her a piece of fruit, but was also trying to say how much she valued Vanessa.

May your holiday season be filled with the gift of cultural understanding and moments to reflect on suspending judgments about what is really going on beneath the surface.


Influencing Business through Trust Internationally

The Invisible Culture of Trust


What makes you trust a person. Is it their handshake? The way they look? Maybe it is the way you were introduced. Chances are you don’t even know what your criteria are for trusting a person, but one thing is for sure – what causes people to trust in one culture could be exactly what causes someone to not trust you in another.

I’ll never forget the first story I heard that illustrated this point. It involved a Japanese car manufacturer who was looking for a parts supplier. The Japanese group had narrowed it down to a U.S. American supplier and a Brazilian one. The U.S. Americans had a superior product at a lower cost, but instead the Japanese group opted for the Brazilian proposal. When the well-prepared U.S. Americans learned this, they were stumped.

Trust is obviously an important part of doing business in all countries, but how it manifests itself through behavior can be completely different. The shared value (Invisible Culture) is trust. The way to establish trust (Visible Culture) varies. For the Chinese it is through Guanxi, for the Germans it is through objectivity and timeliness, for U.S. Americans it may be through speed, and through the French it may be through a shared history.

As far as the above abridged story, in short, the Japanese come from a relationship oriented culture – without the relationship the task won’t get done. As a result, business interactions start with getting to know one another, whether it be through a meal or spending time during the first meeting talking about anything but business. See figure 1.

U.S. Americans come from a task-oriented culture – getting right down to business shows professionalism and respect for time. By starting with the task they can determine whether or not it makes sense to spend time on socializing. See figure 2. To U.S. Americans business socializing still maintains a certain distance, whereas in some cultures, they won’t know if they can trust you until you have showed your true self.

Ways to do that include making yourself vulnerable through drinking together, letting your guard down or picking up that mike in karaoke. It may seem trivial, but in fact it is sometimes the difference between the deal getting done or not.


This is a simplification of a complex subject since there are many different factors involved in how different cultures establish trust. Communication styles, aversion to risk, humor, timing, introductions and cognitive styles can all play a role, but increased awareness about the Task – Relationship dynamic is a good concept to start with if you are going to a new place.

Whether it be a new country or a different region within your own country, the first step is to identify your preferred style, the second is to identify the style of your receiving culture and the third is to adapt to the extent that it doesn’t change your own core values. If you value getting the job done quickly, then sometimes it is best to slow down – you’ll get there faster.


VOTE for us at SXSW

VOTE for us at SXSW


Intercultural communications has been a passion of mine since I discovered the field in 2000 while living in Singapore. I have had the privilege of working with the top Fortune 500 multi-national companies in the world. What I have learned is that some of the toughest programs aren’t those between U.S. Americans and say Japanese, Brazilians, or Germans, but instead with people from English speaking countries.

The assumption is that just because we speak the same language we should be able to understanding one another, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.  As a result, I am asking supporters to vote for our panel submission for the SXSW conference next March in Texas. The panel will illuminate the cultural nuances that are so often overlooked between transatlantic cultures with English as a primary language.

Intercultural Communications is a dialogue worth continuing. Casting your vote helps keep that conversation going and hopefully creating more awareness across cultures. The panel, organized by Ian Sanders and featuring Feargall Kenny of New York Digital Irish, Katherine King of Invisible Culture, and Grainne Barron of Viddyad.

Again, to vote click here.

Thank you.


How to Be a Good Newcomer- A Montauk Story

How to Be a Good Newcomer – A Montauk Story


According to the American Automobile Association 8 in 10 Americans planned to travel over 50 miles over Memorial Day weekend. That means that towns all over the United States and beyond saw an influx of newcomers. Media coverage around this popular holiday weekend tends to focus on the weather, where to go and what to do, but rarely does it talk about how to behave.  This past Memorial Day weekend I heard more than one local in the small fishing village of Montauk, NY express frustration at the way visitors were acting. So, in preparation for the summer holidays in the northern hemisphere I ask the question – what makes a good visitor?

People behave at their worst when there is a gap between their expectations and reality. I call this Expectation Discord. The bigger the gap, the worse people behave. Locals in a given community are accustomed to life going at a certain rhythm, people behaving a certain way and traffic moving at a certain pace.  Visitors entering that space typically aren’t going to be in those same rhythms so the locals’ daily lives get turned upside down.

On the flip side, visitors anticipate a certain experience that they hope to have on their holiday and often times this vision is directly opposed to the way of life of the people within the communities that they are entering. A classic Montauk example is the family who is excited to go to the beach every day and therefore rents a house a few blocks away. When they arrive, they pack their hand pulled wagons, put on their suits and head down the road, but usually they don’t realize that while they are on a leisurely stroll to the beach they are taking up half the road if not all of it. The local still has to get to work and voila – there is a mismatch of usage of that public space.

The local expects to be able to drive on the road without hitting someone. The visitor (usually unaware that just because it is a vacation town, doesn’t mean everyone is on vacation) expects to be able to walk to the beach with their family. I hear stories of locals cautioning visitors and then being yelled at by those visitors to mind their own business. The gap in the visitor’s expectation of being able to do whatever they want (“because I paid for it”…. Ugh, I cringe when I hear a visitor speak of the money they bring to town) and the reality that the road is a local’s business, causes bad behavior.

The next story I heard was from a visitor.   She was standing on the long line at the supermarket. The person in front of them said to the check out person, “Are you ready for the crowds? Town is already a nightmare. I wish they would all go home…” While relaying the story of what happened, the visitor said, “I can hear them. I haven’t even done anything wrong other than come to buy some food. I am in a good mood, I am looking forward to having a good time and this guy is taking his frustration about the crowds indirectly onto anyone within earshot.”

These are somewhat innocuous examples, but what they illustrate are a few of the many stories that foster a “local / outsider” dynamic that creates a superiority bias on both sides. The locals feel mistreated or disrespected and the visitors feel that the locals are rude. An “Us vs. Them” mentality emerges.  Attribution Theory states that we typically give credit to ourselves when things go well and blame to others when things go wrong. It is a convenient way to perpetuate the notion that we don’t play a role in creating a more peaceful environment in our minds and our communities, but in fact we do.

One local said, “If you know the traffic is going to be bad during those times, don’t go anywhere!” This may not always be possible, so narrowing the gap between expectations and inevitable realities is one way to foster better management of a situation, but more of the onus should be on the newcomer to adapt to their host environment, not only the local. It is natural to feel irritated when people change your way of life, just like it is natural to be less aware of your environment when you are in a new place.

World renown Interculturalist, Milton Bennett, developed a model of Intercultural Sensitivity which addresses how people react to difference –  the “Us vs. Them” mindset falls in the same category as racism. Now, to group a frustrated tourist or local with a racist is more than a bit extreme, but Bennett might say that the idea behind it is the same. This “my way is the best way,” mentality is at the heart of not only local frustration, but also global conflict. The solutions to both can be surprisingly similar.

So whether you are visiting somewhere in your own country or moving overseas, following are a few tips for the newcomer:

1)     Acknowledge there is a difference.

The first step in being a good newcomer is to recognize that things are there will be a difference between your expectation about how things should be and the reality of how things actually are. This is half the battle and what lies at the foundation of being a good visitor.

2)     Teach Visitor Values to your children, if you have them. Adopt them for yourself if you don’t.

Having conversations with young people about how to behave when in someone else’s home environment – whether it be a hotel room, a house, a community or a city – is the next step in creating heightened awareness and fostering good global citizenship.

3)     Slow down.

Stop and observe how things are operating, whether or not it is safe to engage in the activities you are considering and whether or not your expectations of how you want your visit to go are in direct opposition to the life of the community before you arrived.

4)     Minimize Expectation Discord

Slowing down allows the time to observe what is happening in your new environment. Imagine life during the off season of a new place. Think about what you envision for your time there and do a gap analysis.  Rarely do expectations match when people come from different places and perspectives.

5)     When confronted with “rudeness,” suspend judgment

This is not meant to excuse drunken behavior or belligerence, so much as a strategy to take a moment to give pause to the notion that people may be seeing things differently and therefore not have the ability to take on a different perspective.

6)     Seek out the alternative reasons why people are behaving “badly”

After suspending judgment, try to figure out what else might be going on. The simple act of inquiry in itself can be unifying.

7)     Maintain faith in the goodwill of people and in your own goodwill

This tip comes from the global leader in relocation service, Cartus Corporation. It works. People usually don’t leave their house in the morning and say, “Hey I want to bother someone today.”

8)     Get a trusted cultural advisor

Ask the local what some of the mistakes are that newcomers typically make. You may agree that some are just inexcusable bad behavior, but you may also find that there are things you were planning on doing that when seen from the local’s perspective, might not make as much sense anymore.

9)     Increase awareness of your environment

Whether driving or going to the bank, put up some additional antennae to what is going on around you. Vacation or newcomer mentality tends to be a bit clueless which can easily be translated into disrespect.

10) Forgive bad behavior

An ounce of forgiveness yields a pound of healing. Living with people who are outwardly critical or disrespectful is hard under the worst of circumstances. Releasing yourself from their transgressions means releasing your day from the negative influence of superiority bias.

11) Be picky about the people you spend time with

Claudia Chen of the SHE Conference for women says it best, “We become the company we keep. [A bit of commiseration can be therapeutic, but] we are responsible for our energy and since energy is precious we need to be responsible for cultivating it in a positive way.”


12) Never assume you’ve paid the right to do what you want

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a visitor say, “Locals should be happy we are bringing money into their town.” Yuck! Argh! Ptew! Horror! Paying for a vacation does not mean earning the right to be disrespectful.

13) Check Your Driving

A common characteristic of a tourist is that they don’t know where they are going. As a result driving tends to be too slow (while exploring) or too fast (blind corners, children at play). Check your driving. Pull over if you are lost and figure out where you are going and then proceed. Especially in the case of adolescents, we hear countless stories of fast, life threatening driving.

The difference between moving to a new country or simply going on vacation is vast, but the behaviors of good newcomers share many traits. Culture clashes inevitable, but awareness is a good starting point. Who knows, maybe the end point will be decreased frustration for everyone.


Punctuality and Consistency: a Multi-Cultural Example

The Other Lotus

Lotus- The Other Lotus Blog Photo

From time to time I encounter an exceptional business on my travels. Last year it was in Peru. This year it was on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand. There are certain environments in which it is difficult to find talent let alone retain it. Even if you can find good people, the challenges of then producing highly effective employees within a system that results in an exceptional product are great. A remote island is one of those environments, but efficiency, high quality service, punctuality and consistency are exactly what the owners and manager of Kamalaya Resort on Koh Samui Island have achieved and I was determined to find out what their secret was.

So I met with the General Manager, Clive McNish who was kind enough to sit down with me and share what makes them such an exceptional place. I was amazed to find even the largest multi-national organization could learn a lot from this small business.

Multi-cultural Make-Up

Most organizations would see working in multi-cultural teams a challenge, but Mr. McNish sees it as one of their primary strengths.

“We are lucky to have a large mix of cultures, which is rare in this part of the world,” he responded. When I asked how he kept everything operating so punctually.  “Part of the quality of what we are doing is about the consistency of what we do. It’s no good being good on one day and the next day not. You can see a lot of this in Asia.”

The founders are Canadian and Mexican. The other co-owner is Swiss; the site manager is Hungarian; the chef is from Hong Kong; the Naturapath is S. African. We have an English sales and marketing manager, an Indian web manager, and in the wellness center we have Chinese doctors, a Latvian manager, Indian therapists…we are a mixture.


This all sounds great, but so many businesses struggle because of their multi-national team and he was saying that they were thriving as a result of it. What gives?

“We invest very heavily in training. Time Management is part of training. The most important thing here is the good nature and the ability to be in service of the individual. The skills for our therapists come from our academy that we opened last year. We over hire, so that someone can always be in education, if you like, so they are not actually working all the time.”

He shows me a 177 page manual for wait staff and then, as if he knew I was coming (which he didn’t), he pulls out a stack of laminated flash cards from his desk that represent the Service Standards of the various departments.

“Each department has a set of Standards and each card has a visual picture that goes along with the Standard so employees can internalize the learnings, both visually and verbally, which is key when working across languages. There are language gaps, so we have to be creative about how we get things to stick”

“Also, we have two full-time English teachers on staff. This is very different from a lot of resorts that will have a roving English teacher who will go from resort to resort, here we have made a major investment into that.” That explains the garden staff who greeted me in English so confidently and with an eagerness to continue the encounter to its conclusion. I remember walking away impressed, but also scratching my head a bit as to where he learned such good English.

“When people know what they have to do, they feel much more confident in doing it and then it’s all measurable. But having said that, without taking away that beautiful Thai culture. That has to be allowed to flourish. In the background we are doing what we can for that to happen.”

And this was evident in every encounter I had with staff. I was continually greeted with hands together raised at the heart, often with a Thai greeting (except for the delightful gardener)!


“When we hire a member of staff they have a buddy trainer as they go through the process of learning. It is not a skill that we necessarily look for, it is more about finding a service individual and then we train them.  When we hire a member of staff they have a buddy trainer as they go through the process of learning.”

I have heard this many times in the past – companies that would rather hire for attitude or ambition in place of specific skills. Now that may not always be possible at certain levels and in certain industries, but often recruitment processes focus on job descriptions alone without an organization having a philosophy about what immeasurable qualities a potential employee may have.


“We also give the therapists a long time between appointments for turnover.  Now when I have run hotels and spas in Europe, the turnover time between treatments is five minutes. Here the turnover time is 30 minutes between treatments. So that also allows for us to absorb when people come in late.  It means that we aren’t driving them at 100%, which gives them the ability to be a bit more relaxed and give nicer service.

“As a mathematical model, someone would say you are crazy, that is not efficient enough, but we would rather have a few less people and have everything work a bit more nicely.” But they don’t have a few less people. In fact, appointment slots are fully booked and a hotel that only a few years ago was easy to get into is now at full occupancy.

Time and time again in my trainings I see corners being cut for the sake of the bottom line and a strong training focus on quality initiatives with fancy names, but that focus tends to be on finding the root causes of problems and cutting out inefficiencies. Here he is telling me the opposite and it is resulting in a higher standard of service, which is resulting in a full roster of treatments, fully booked rooms and multiple awards in their industry.

Team Building

Their philosophy on team building is not mutually exclusive of their philosophy on training. “We have 3-4 team building outings a year. Water jousting, treasure hunts, spider webs they have to get the teams through, water volleyball – classic team building stuff outside of the resort.

“We also allow them to use their own creativity. The first day we did an Iron Resort activity where teams of 20 were told they had to create a restaurant or spa based on our standards. Some became chefs. Some designed menus. Some designed the restaurants. With 250 staff members there are weeks of training that culminate into an annual staff party.”

Investing in People

“The culture of looking after the team is very, very strong. That has been important throughout my whole career. The more time you invest in people the happier they are and the more turnover is reduced and that is one of the biggest challenges in the hotel industry throughout the world, so if there is anything you can do to reduce it.

“It isn’t always about money though. It’s also about those small benefits. Sporting activities, sponsoring certain things, hospital visits, medical insurance and all that stuff that goes with it are all part of the package that makes it more attractive for the team.

“They are very well looked after. We do as much as we can.”


Such factors aid tremendously in holding on to valuable employees.  Over the past ten years I have heard retention come up over and over again as the number one human resource challenge. One can look to external forces such as globalization. We are in a unique moment in history where the global employee market place is going through a significant transition. When people are able to make ten times what their parents made each time they change jobs you can’t blame them for shifting from place to place.

“There is a huge family culture here, but it doesn’t mean people don’t leave because the guy up the road opens up and offers them more money, but the turnover has definitely gone down and people are invested into Kamalaya. If you look at the length of 60% percent of them it is long – 6-7 years. That is exceptional for this market.” And it isn’t only this market. Large multi-nationals in big cities with highly educated workforces are also struggling with this issue.

“Still it’s difficult to keep people. Samui isn’t as attractive as some places like Phuket or Bankok. 90% of the staff is Thai. Many Thai want to go overseas – the Middle East or to work on cruise ships. The funny thing is, a lot of them come back and I open the door immediately because they spread their stories about the hardships. Working 16 days, no place to eat – oh actually it isn’t so bad here. In fact, we have a lady coming back from the Maldives in a couple of weeks.”


“My philosophy is and a philosophy for them is, if you aren’t making a difference here or doing something that you can leave behind that will actually help people in the future, you probably shouldn’t be here because you are doing nothing but drawing from the environment.

“We are driving for those five star standards and I think that comes from a shared responsibility towards something beyond just a job.”

Founded by John and Karina Stewart, Kamalaya started with a vision that is carried on even in their absences.

“Many places like this are a business first and a concept second. Here we are a concept first and it is the passion of John and Karina that created this place and doesn’t go away. Even as it gets bigger and expands, that passion of John is still here. It is really amazing how he talks about this place and what drove him to have it.

When John comes to town the staff looks forward to it.

The Other Lotus

So why the lotus? It is a symbol of something beautiful emerging from the murky mud below the surface of the water upon which it sits. Not only is it a symbol of strength, beauty and perseverance across many religious philosophies, but also the logo of Kamalaya. Here is an example, which has risen from the classic murky challenges of multi-cultural teams, isolated location and global transition into a visibly exceptional product that is firm in its roots.

Cross-Cultural Training?

In conclusion, I couldn’t help but ask about Cross-Cultural Training – that is what I do after all, so I was wondering if it played any role.

“Yes, last year we did something on being an expat in Thailand and some people thought it was risky to do. We talked about how Thai people do things differently and in the end it was an absolutely brilliant day and then we could go out for a night afterwards. It was good. We will do it again.”


Heads Up in the New Year!

Heads Up in the New Year!

Most New Year’s resolutions have to do with food and exercise, but healthier living also has to do with how we think. As a result, my first blog of the year is a brief little exercise about conscious and unconscious bias in hopes of inspiring a new way of reflecting on how we think about the world around us.

Step 1: Look at this picture and ask yourself: “What are stereotypes you can come up with of women dressed like she is?”

photo 3

Step 2: Now look at the next picture and answer the same question.

photo 1

Try to capture the very first thoughts that come into your mind. This will allow you to really take stock of how we all have tapes that play in our minds and how they can affect the way we see things with which we may not be familiar.

After 9/11 the following notions were more and more likely:

not my friend
unable to work
can’t drive

And yet she is none of these. She is:

a soccer mom
a business woman
a former Ms. Softball U.S.A.
a lover of country and Arabic music
She is a Muslim
She is American

This is Lobna Mohamed Abdel Rehim Ismail – shortened in the U.S.A. to four letters – Luby. She is the founder and President of Connecting Cultures, located in Washington D.C., a consulting firm that specializes in facilitating people’s understanding of culture and religion. She was the go to person in the days following 9/11.

The above exercise is inspired by her trainings during those confusing days when government agencies were scrambling to make sense of the backlash and random violence that was sweeping the nation against Arabs, Muslims or people who looked Muslim. Men with beards, women who covered their hair or Sikhs who were victims of horrible crimes and that unfortunately still continue today.

Luby’s rooms went from the ideal 20 people to the necessary 200 with standing room only. One professor admitted, “After you put that (head scarf) on I could no longer hear you. I could no longer listen to you. I was so disturbed by becoming aware of my own bias that I had to leave the room.” For him it awakened something inside. It revealed that as a father of three girls with progressive attitudes advocating women’s rights, he was still so affected by this woman’s choice to cover her head.

So what is it about the experience of so many people in non-Muslim-majority countries that we are more interested by what is on a woman’s head than what is in her head?

It is hard to know when we have unconscious biases operating since they are, well, unconscious. Exercises like these and digging deeper to challenge our stereotypes is a great first step in creating a healthier way of approaching the New Year and opening up our minds to all possibilities.

So for me, I will continue to ask myself – what are my unconscious biases that play a role in how I see the world? What is the tape that plays in my mind? Maybe in 2014 we can add mindfulness to the definition of good health; mindfulness of ourselves, mindfulness of those around us and mindfulness that there is so much that is invisible to us.

With that I will leave you with one final picture:

photo 2

Thank you Luby for sharing your experiences. Happy New Year everyone.