To Japan With Love

Yuka just boarded her flight back home.

My family was selected as one of three host families for a Rotary youth exchange student from Japan. Yuka spent this past year immersing herself in American culture, language, and education, and she had the experience of a lifetime.

For my family, the experience was every bit as rewarding. Through Yuka, a joyful, kind, and enthusiastic ambassador for her home country, we caught a glimpse through the peephole into the fascinating world of Japan. For her part, Yuka confronted several challenges along the way, especially early on as she struggled to become fluent in English and understand the nuances of our relaxed communication style.

Now that the tears have dried, I’ve had a few days to reflect on the experience. Several lessons are applicable to marketing communications:

  1. Communicate simply and clearly: Simplicity is always a worthwhile goal in communications, but when dealing with a non-native English speaker, it is particularly important to break your writing down to the core message. What is your goal? Are your sentences and paragraphs overstuffed with purple prose? If you slash all non-essential words and phrases, is anything lost?
  2. If at first, you don’t connect, restate your message: Sometimes I would ask Yuka a question, and be rewarded with a blank stare. This was a sure sign I needed to rephrase the question in a different way, using simpler, more common verbiage. Occasionally it meant I needed to provide additional background information or context. These interactions reminded me there is usually more than one way to communicate with your audience.
  3. Know your audience: In Japanese, there are four distinct ways of addressing people: kun, chan, san, and sama. These various styles range from informal, to condescending, to deferential. Japanese custom requires speakers to address people differently depending on their relative ages and organizational rank. Although the U.S. is a much less formal and hierarchical society, it is still critical to understand your audience and cater your messaging style accordingly. Ignoring your audience’s perspective means at best, encouraging misunderstanding and at worst, offending the reader.
  4. Listen before speaking: Yuka taught me to listen more closely and to have patience. As a non-native English speaker, she would sometimes struggle to find the right word. After much trial and error, rather than quickly jumping in with what I thought was the phrase she was looking for, I learned to let her sort through her mental catalog to find the words that fit her thoughts. I often found she was trying to say something different from what I assumed. This lesson is already helping me in my writing and interactions with collaborators and clients. Even as native speakers, few of us can always, perfectly articulate our thoughts, goals, and messages. It pays to listen, ask follow-up questions, and engage in interactive dialogue before drawing conclusions.
  5. Thank your lucky stars: Those of us living in the English-speaking world have it easy. Not only does a majority of the (business) world speak English, other languages, particularly those native to Asia, are much harder to learn. Consider that Japanese has four separate systems of written language: kanji, hiragana, katakana, and romanj. Kanji, which was imported from China two millennia ago, consists of 2,000 symbols in common use, each representing a different word. Japanese children must memorize over 1,000 kanji by the time they finish elementary school.

My family and I are grateful to Yuka for sharing her wonderful and unique perspective and personality with us for a few months. We miss our host daughter/sister already and look forward to seeing her again, perhaps next time in Japan.

Yoku kaite, umaku iku.
Write Well, and Be Well!

 

Comments

  1. Ted that was well written and easy to understand. very good lessons on comminicating

  2. Richard C. Davis says:

    Ted;
    The sum total of life experiences is hopefully wisdom. Wisdom comes from really listening to people and not prejudging someone based on what you think they mean or are thinking. This is a very difficult thing to do and one I struggle with constantly, but hopefully I am getting better at it. Your experience with Yuka has put you miles ahead in the wisdom category . I am very proud of you

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