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One way to mis-frame a problem is to use your own cultural framing when you are in another cultural context. Of course, most of us recognize that different languages are spoken in different places. Communication is much more time-consuming and error-prone when you are speaking different languages. But the frameworks that we use can also be different and those can be more subtle. 

The first time I visited Japan, around 1977, I had spent some time learning something of the Japanese language before arriving. I had had some experience learning French and a bit more learning German. As a native speaker of English, when you learn a German word or a French word, you can generally find cognates in your own native language for most German or French words. I find that helps me recall the German or French word. 

For instance, my first word as a child was supposedly “Moon.” In German, “the moon” is “der Mund.” The vowel sound is very close to that in the English “moon” so it’s fairly easy to remember. In French, “the moon” is “la lune” which sounds very similar to “the moon” but is also related to the English words “lunar”, “lunacy” (people used to believe too much time in the moonlight could drive you crazy” “lunette” (an architectural space shaped like a half moon), etc. 

These similarities are not surprising because English grew out of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon but was heavily influenced after the Norman Conquest of 1066 by French. Typically, English has words related to both the French word for something and the German word. For example, in English we have the word “hand” which is similar to the German “die Hand” and we have the words “manual,” “maintain,” and “manicure” which are similar to the French for “le main.”

In fact, this duality is so common, that if you happen to know that the German word for “the forest”is “der Wald” (which is like “the woods”) then you can be fairly certain that the French word will be similar to “forest” and indeed we have “la forêt” in French. Or, if you happen to know that the French word for the English “the foot” is “le pied” (which is similar to “pedicure” and “podiatrist”) you can guess that the German word will be close to “the foot” and, indeed, it is “der Fuß.” 

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When it comes to Japanese, however, these kinds of mind games are not possible. In a few cases, foreign words have been adopted by Japanese. “Coffee” for example is “kōhī” but apart from a few such cases, you won’t be able to use your knowledge of Indo-European languages to much advantage in learning Japanese. 

If you enter a “Restaurant” in Berlin or a “Restaurant” in Paris, you will not only see many English words, you will be almost certainly following the same “script” for how things happen at a restaurant in England, American, Australia, or Canada. You go in. You are typically greeted near the door by a host or hostess. You are shown to your table. You are given a menu. You order off the menu. Your meal is brought to you; you eat; you get a bill; you pay your bill. You leave.

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When I went to have my first breakfast in Japan, I went with dictionary in hand. I knew I had not come anywhere close to learning enough of the language to manage on my own. But what I had not counted on was that the “script” for eating in that particular restaurant was quite different from what I was used to in America. 

I went in, and sure enough, I was greeted by my host. “Ohayōgozaimasu” which basically means “Good morning.” She didn’t seem to be in any hurry to show me to my table, however, so I began to walk past her and find a table on my own. She again said, “Ohayōgozaimasu!” But, this time, she said it, a little more insistently; indeed, she moved as though to block my entry. I checked my little Japanese guidebook and again said, “Ohayōgozaimasu!” I said it a bit more enthusiastically and distinctly this time, sure that I had mispronounced it slightly and that was causing some confusion. I moved to walk past her and this time she once again said “Ohayōgozaimasu!!’ She bracketed this with some other things that were not in the guidebook and that I did not understand. And, this time, there was no mistaking it. She was actually blocking me from entering the restaurant! 

Two things occurred to me. First, I must not have said “good morning” correctly. Second, I must have said “good morning” without being sufficiently polite. I tried again, this time, being sure to bow to her and she had bowed to me. 

No. Something else was going on. 

Eventually, she explained to me with Japanese and gestures that there was a completely different script in play. Here, you were supposed to go in where the hostess greeted you and then you were meant to immediately pay the price of breakfast. In return, you receive a wooden token. You walk in, choose your own place to sit, and display your wooden token on the table conspicuously. Then, at some point, your breakfast arrives. You eat your breakfast and then you leave. When do you order? You do not order at all, because everyone has the same breakfast! 

Next time you find yourself confused by what is happening, you might consider that you are playing a part in a very different script. 

By the way, a traditional Japanese breakfast is probably my very favorite breakfast. Yes, I love pancakes. Yes, I love bacon and eggs. But, I not only love eating a Japanese breakfast. I love how I feel afterwards: satisfied, clean, healthy, and not sluggish from being overfed. What is shown in the photo below is close to what I had. The main difference is that I was given a raw egg, not tamago. As recently as 1977, raw eggs did not presumptively have salmonella. 

You may or may not ever have the pleasure of visiting Japan. If you do, I can pretty much guarantee that you make some sort of cultural faux pas. If you do, you may or may not realize it, because, generally speaking, Japanese are polite and will cut you more slack than if someone brought up in Japan did as you did.

And, speaking of guaranties, I would be surprised if you did not at some point find yourself not understanding the “language” of those you were working with who came from a different background or discipline. Sure, some words will be similar. Others won’t. And the worst will be words that are spelled and sound the same but in fact refer to different concepts. For example, in my field, psychology, the word “reinforcement” has a very specific meaning that is similar but distinct from its daily usage. The word “force” in physics means something quite different and more objectively measurable that the “force” of an argument or my using “force” to get my way. 

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Even more subtle traps, some inadvertent, arise because people you collaborate with may have different cultures. In my research roles, for example, it came to pass that I had occasion to interact with people with a business background. In some cases, I was asked to present a “business case” to show how a product or research program would have a good ROI. They wanted me to mathematically “prove” an idea financially worthwhile. 

Only they did not really want a “mathematical proof” in the sense that a mathematician (or a research psychologist) means “mathematical proof.” Of course not! How could they. They want reasonable assumptions with some back up and a plausible story, laced with math, that can be used to support their decision to their management. If I had a “mathematical proof” that they could not understand, they would be unable to use it with their management. Partly, this is a case of a word meaning different things, but more, it is a story about two different cultures.

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Business propositions can never be proven to be wise ahead of time. Unlike the frictionless plane of the physicist or the “controlled lab experiment” of the psychologist, or the well-defined axiomatic system of the mathematician, actual business outcomes can be impacted by a huge number of unpredictable factors; e.g., weather, legal actions, public relations disasters, etc. In addition, a scientist usually has a longer time-frame in mind. While the business decision maker only needs to explain or persuade a layer or two of management who will typically spend less time and have less expertise than the presenter, the scientist must be prepared to present her or his work to the most brilliant and experienced people in the field.

These and other natural differences between “business thinking” and “science thinking” lead to different cultures. In 1977, when I visited my colleagues in Japan who worked in Human-Computer Interaction, I felt more akin to them while talking about computing than I did to my next door neighbors back home who worked in sales or construction. 

Every field develops its own culture. 

Be aware. Be respectful. 

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Index to a Pattern Language for Collaboration and Cooperation 

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