The art of bowing, and a few lessons in cultural awareness

ph: Ilaria Ingegneri

How can companies start developing cultural awareness about their markets and customers? Let me share first a personal story.

At the conclusion of my Ph.D. studies in Japan, I was asked to represent my cohort at the university graduation ceremony. I had spent there five years as the only Western student, the first one graduating. I was honoured, and looking forward to the moment.

The rehearsal director briefed me on the ceremony protocol: when my name got called, I would go on stage and receive the diploma on behalf of my peers. Easy peasy. And then the tricky part: once arrived centre stage, she went on, I would bow to the Dean, lift my arms to receive the diploma from him, and hold the position for a few seconds.

Much to the surprise of everybody at the rehearsals, when I tried bowing it didn’t work. I felt awkward, and it looked awkward.

This was something that I had not anticipated. After ten years spent absorbing Japanese culture, I was fully aware of the social importance of bowing, and I knew that the degree and the duration of bending help the Japanese establish roles and hierarchies in their formal interactions.

I knew the rules. What I had not realized is that bowing was not included in my repertoire of movements. Foreign in my own body, I had to quickly try catching up with the art of bowing.

Lessons learnt about culture that work for businesses too:

  • one thing is knowing, another thing is understanding. I knew about bowing, but I actually did not fully understand it. In business we tend to get comfortable with the information we get from hard data: the customer demographics, their purchase patterns, the way they surf our website, etc. And yet, do we really know our customers? What are they not telling us? We need to go beyond the information and get a first-hand understanding of the wider context: how our customers make sense of their lives, and how our products actually sit in that experience.
  • culture is about the why behind the what. Bowing is about bending the upper part of your body to a certain degree. Culturally speaking, however, bowing is about social respect. A car is made of mechanical and electrical components, parts of metal, plastic and leather. But what is a car in our daily lives? It can be a means of transportation, a treat for a promotion or a birthday, a statement about our personality, a vehicle to freedom. Businesses produce products, but do not produce the meanings that their products will have for their consumers. Only when we are able to tap into the whys of our customers, will we be able to understand the value that our products are really offering.
  • cultural awareness arises when we suspend the judgement. You are never done with learning. In consolidating your business intelligence, wait to discard dissonant cues or outlying behaviours. Keep looking around with curiosity. Suspending any rushed judgement (this is not typical of my customers) or overlooking attitude (this is not my market), allows you to see more and deeper than the others: a pocket of opportunity, an emerging consumption behaviour, a trend to capture. Sustainability, the#metoo movement and Black Lives Matter did not suddenly “happened,” they had been brewing for quite some time. Cultural awareness puts you in a position of action alongside change, rather than reaction to change.

PS: The graduation ceremony went smoothly, I bowed, and no diplomatic incident occurred (phew). Once at home I discovered inside my diploma a yellow Post-it with the pronunciation of my name in katakana alphabet. I had not been the only one confronting cultural diversity that day: the Dean wanted to get the interaction right too!