Trying to save face

I was fortunate to be assigned to some Japanese clients when I started my career at a large PR agency.

I was fortunate to be assigned to some Japanese clients when I started my career at a large PR agency.

My first account was Matsushita, now known as Panasonic, and my second was NTT, the Japanese phone company. These were big and prestigious global organizations, and my contacts there were sophisticated, intelligent, and worldly executives. They were culturally different from Americans.

Luckily for me, my personality and style were a good fit and I was able to establish close, productive working relationships with both clients.

My boss, who was the president of the agency, was particularly adept at working with international companies and he mentored me closely.

He was pleased with my progress and asked me to put together a list of suggestions I could share with other colleagues who worked with Japanese clients. I eagerly complied.

The resulting document had practical tips designed to help avoid cultural pitfalls. For example, one piece of advice was: "If your Japanese client says that something is difficult, what they mean is: It's impossible. Don't even try to do it."

This was useful for Americans who believed that difficult meant tough, but achievable.

Another tip was focused on the importance of "nommunications," which is going out for drinks in order to have a frank, open dialogue. The document stressed the need to listen and to respect the cultural need to "save face" or avoid direct conflict and humiliation.

My boss was pleased with the report and asked me to present it to other members of our Japan desk. This included professionals in our Washington, DC, office, and I was more than thrilled to fly there and present my recommendations. At the time, I was 23 years old.

With great pride I arrived in DC to present my report. Unfortunately for me, I had made an embarrassing mistake in the report: I misused the phrase full bore and instead wrote full boat. I'm a little mortified to admit that I actually thought the proper term was full boat.

The head of the Washington office was in the meeting and he gleefully seized upon the malapropism and slowly began to goad me. "What does full boat mean?" he asked with seeming innocence. I explained that it meant full throttle.

"Really?" he asked. "I'm an avid sailor and I've never heard that term." He proceeded to toy with me until I realized my mistake. He teased long enough to leave me humiliated, then smugly excused himself to attend another meeting.

How ironic that at a presentation about the cultural importance of saving face, I was confronted by a guy whose motive was apparently to shame and cause me to lose face.

That incident happened more than 30 years ago, yet I remember it with great clarity. It used to make me feel angry and embarrassed, but now I mostly feel sad for that general manager. What made him feel the need to humiliate me? What turned him into a bully?

I'll never know the answers to those questions, but I do know now that he committed the most egregious error, not me.

In hindsight, I learned two important things from the whole affair. From my American colleague I learned to double and triple check any literary allusions before I published them. And from my Japanese friends, I learned how important it is to treat people with dignity and respect.

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun-America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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