For the first 15 years of my career, I worked primarily with Japanese companies.
I was fortunate to represent some of Japan's greatest brands, such as Hitachi, Nissan, Matsushita (now known as Panasonic), and Minolta. I learned a great deal about business and about Japan. I also had some awkward intercultural moments.
In my first trip to Japan, I was hosted by Matsushita for a two-week orientation program. I was put up in a "businessman's" hotel, which was a budget inn about 30 minutes from Osaka. I felt like a true "salaryman" - the bathroom was so small that the sink faucets also controlled the shower, and the TV had a slot where if you inserted 50 yen, you could watch Japanese-language soft-core porn.
At a happy-hour gathering after work, I was welcomed by my Matsushita colleagues for a round of drinking and karaoke. One of my hosts got up, made a toast, and said, "Kanpai!"
Another colleague toasted and said, "Cheers!" A third proclaimed, "Salud!"
Now it was my turn. I desperately sought a new toasting word, found it, and proudly proclaimed, "Chin-chin!"
The room burst into laughter and animated chatter in Japanese. Mr. Kawasaki, my host, pulled me aside. "Don-san, you can't say chin-chin," he said. "In Japanese, it means testicles."
Another early client was Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. My firm had been hired to promote the actions the company was taking to open up its procurement process to US suppliers and to publicize any significant purchases of US goods. I worked closely with its executives who were stationed in New York and keenly focused on public opinion and the mood in Washington.
This was an important role for Nippon, and these executives were highly intelligent with broad global experience. Most were graduates of the prestigious Tokyo University.
One day I took Mr. Toda, the head of Nippon's New York office, to lunch to pitch a new pro- gram. We went to one of the finer, authentic Japanese restaurants. Mr. Toda did the ordering.
The first course was a dish of cold crawdads, completely in their shells. As I surveyed the foreboding little creatures, Mr. Toda popped the entire thing in to his mouth, tentacles and all.
We then moved on to one of our regular topics, American colloquialisms. He often asked me to explain phrases such as "read the riot act," "once in a blue moon," or, a favorite of mine, "raining cats and dogs."
This day, Mr. Toda stumped me. "Don-san," he said. "What does 'macho' mean?"
Macho. Macho. How do I explain macho?
Mr. Toda took advantage of my hesitancy and plucked another crayfish as I pondered.
"Do you know who Hulk Hogan is?" I asked. (This was, after all, the 1980s.)
"No," said Mr. Toda as a hook-claw slid past his lips.
"Do you know who Rambo is?" I asked hopefully.
"Of course," he answered. "The French poet."
He was referring to Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th century Parisian known for his visionary poetic verse and scandalous affair with poet Paul Verlaine. I was referring to the Sylvester Stallone character with sweaty biceps who grunted out monosyllabic lines while blowing up bridges with hand grenades.
That afternoon of crawdads and sake offered me wonderful insight about working in the global marketplace: a person can be wicked smart even if they don't speak English eloquently. Know your audience. l
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.