Archive for July, 2009
Cues to beginning a professional relationship correctly.
What may I call you please? Asking this question, listening to the response to it and then following the instruction given is the most candid and important way to break the ice and build a sustainable relationship when meeting someone for the first time.
I met a couple of US Congressmen the other day at a dinner party in India. That was the first time I was meeting a Congressman (the equivalent of our Member of Parliament, I found out). I was introduced to Sheila Jackson Lee, and I asked, “May I call you Sheila?” Her response was “Sure, whatever name is easy for you to retain.” But I later found others in the congressional party calling her ‘Congresswoman Jackson Lee’ and the other person, ‘Congressman Moran’. So I followed suit and thus stuck to protocol.
The title of a dignitary must be maintained, so it’s better to get it right the first time, but otherwise at least listen, learn and imitate. Titles are precious to those on whom they have been conferred.
A medical degree or a doctorate is usually earned after much hard work, so in using the title ‘Dr’ while addressing a medical practitioner or a PhD holder, you are showing respect for the person’s educational qualifications. You can’t go wrong there. And while addressing top diplomats and the heads of mission, it is customary to use titles like ‘Ambassador’ and ‘Your Excellency’, as appropriate.
But what about the common ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’? Sometimes, their use can be tricky. For instance, when you’re unsure whether it is a man or a woman you are addressing in an e-mail — the name could belong to either sex — like the English name Lewis or the Indian Roop and Kiran. When in doubt, use the full name leaving out titles; say ‘Dear Lewis Philips’ or ‘Roop Chander’ or ‘Kiran Kapoor’, as the case may be.
And if you have to send a letter to someone you know is a woman, but whose marital status you’re unaware of, fall back on the tried and trusted ‘Ms’ ( pronounced ‘mizz’).
These tips are mainly for written communications and formal meetings. They need not be carried through to all occasions you meet the same people, especially once you establish a degree of comfort with them and they request you to drop the formality.
Many Americans wonder why Indians can’t simply address them the way they want to be addressed.
During my visit to a joint venture company to facilitate a team building multicultural workshop, an executive assistant to the co-CEOs said in front of her two bosses: “I am confused, Tom Hawkins wants me to call him Tom and I know Sanjay Prafulla wants me to call him Sir, so which one do I have to follow?” This is because in India, in traditional corporate interaction, seniors like to be called ‘Sir’ or addressed as ‘Mr so-and-so’. In the US, ‘Sir’ is used mainly for the military, while in the UK , it could refer to the high honour of a knighthood, in which case the person is addressed by his first name prefixed with ‘Sir’ .
We Indians are taught from early childhood that it is disrespectful to address grown-ups by their given names. We carry these instructions through into adulthood and even when specifically asked to drop the ‘Mr’, ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ persist in using these titles. And actually, we could end up annoying Westerners in the process.
Recently, Brian Woolworth from Wales was in a ‘working in India’ programme I ran. He said he found it difficult to handle so much ‘Sir-ing’. He also asked when his team of 80 engineers would stop jumping up and quickly tidy their desks if he came around for a chat.
The trick would be for us to always have our desks more or less organised, so we could be confident both when our boss is there and not there, isn’t it?
Also pause to think for a minute — is your refusal to adopt the less formal form of address a matter of your personal comfort? If the other person is not comfortable with your mode of address, wouldn’t it be better to put his or her comfort before your own?
I also told Brian not to have too many informal chats till his team felt at ease with him and also to talk to them over a coffee about his work and personal interaction style. After all, good manners has to be about feeling at ease both ways; so we do teach Westerners to adapt too, and believe me they are willing.
When I met Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, he said, “Call me Jeff.” I found that everyone in his entourage called him “Jeff”, so I followed suit and built that relationship. While writing to him, I kept it formal, but while speaking I used his first name. On the other hand, when I first met Captain Shantanu Banerjee, I asked him my favourite question, “What may I call you please?” The response was “Whatever you like,” but knowing he had come from a navy background and was now a corporate leader in a multinational job, I used the title ‘Captain’ when I continued with my dialogue. My presentation went rather well because of that, I thought.
The bottom line: Be a chameleon and switch as the occasion demands.
Tips on building an effective relationship with the Japanese.
One of my very first Japanese clients, from over a decade ago, recently came back on a visit to India. That set me thinking about what I had learned to do right, which had cemented our relationship. Other than giving high quality at the right price and meeting deadlines, there are 10 things which, if done right, help in gelling with the Japanese.
Making sounds of empathy is what the Japanese do often; sounds like ‘ahhh’, ‘soooooo’. You don’t have to do it unless you can make it a natural practise, but respect the style of their responses, which are slow and have many pauses with empathetic sounds.
Slow down your speech. We Indians are often accused of speaking too quickly. When it is words we are very familiar with, we tend to let them roll off our tongues. I remember telling a Japanese client that satyameva jayate is our national slogan and that it means ‘truth alone triumphs’. He was very interested, but had to ask me to repeat it at least eight times before getting it. Finally, I wrote it down and he deliberately and seriously repeated “sat-ya-me-va ja-ya-te, truth-alone-triumphs”. I could have made it easier for him by slowing down my speech, myself, in the first place.
Thanking them for a previous meeting when you next meet is as important as saying “thank you” when an act is done. I had taken a Japanese client out for dinner to the Taj hotel and when we met again, almost a month later, the first thing he said was “Thank you for the last time; dinner at the Taj. The naan bread was very good.” Not only did it make me feel happy, but I also realised that this was a Japanese nicety used as an ice breaker. If you get your associate happy with a compliment and gratitude for an act from the past, it only gets him or her ready to listen to you and be attentive to your needs this time too. So do find something to thank them for to make sure this meeting goes well too.
Bowing Japanese style. The bow for a man is hands by the side, straight, pointing to the heels; eyes looking towards the ground. For a woman, the hands are held in front of the thighs and clasped lightly as she bows, eyes ground-ward. Keeping your eyes upwards, trying to maintain eye contact is actually considered very rude. So do practice this several times till you become comfortable. It is worth the effort.
Mentioning similarities between Japan and India as a conversation starter. Many of our clients in Marubeni Corporation, in the early days, became my friends through conversations we had on how we believe in elder care and respect for age in our two countries. And also on how well we follow traditional ceremonies in both cultures, ceremonies such as the tea ceremony in theirs or a pooja in ours. Tea drinking was relationship- and respect-building time too for both sides.
Exchange of business cards is super important, of course. The Japanese may think of his business card as his own face or identity, so do not shove it into your back pocket and sit on it; that is as insulting as someone sitting on your face! Take a few minutes to read the contents, say the name slowly with ‘san’ at the end and place it in front of you to refer to from time to time. Try it out with your own Indian colleagues, it feels good to have paid and received attention actually. Hand and receive cards with both hands, holding two corners with your thumbs, name pointing towards the recipient — this is so as to not hide the name with a clumsy finger-hold and to enable the recipient to see the name right away. Print your cards in Japanese too if you are doing business long-term with Japan. It helps build relationships.
Learning a few phrases in any language is helpful, but is particularly easy and has a huge impact in Japan, so I highly recommend it. Here is a short list; the Internet can show you pronunciations, but chances are you will get it right as it is mostly pronounced the way it is written — oishii desu ne – it is so tasty; nihongo wa ojozu desu ne – how good your English is; itadakimasu – I am starting now, an expression to use before you start your meal while dining with the Japanese; gochisosama deshita – the meal was delicious — after a meal. Konnichi wa – good day; komban wa – good evening; and domo arigato gozaimasu – thank you very much.
Use the suffix ‘san’ with all Japanese last names, but never for your own. So I found that Fukase san could be Wataru the man or Yukiko the woman when we refer to them by their last name. But you could also refer to people by their first names. I could ask, for instance, “Wataru-san, how is Yukiko-san doing?” or vice versa. You never give too much importance to yourself so you would never say “I am Ranjini-san,” as I found out the hard way, with much giggling among my Japanese women friends when I first uttered it!
The Japanese like to hear about Buddhist places in India, Indian films and festivals such as holi and diwali. Prepare brief sentences to describe each festival and it will be a great conversation filler. Ask them about sakura, their cherry blossom flower and about Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) which they venerate as we do the Himalayas. Say you would love to see Fuji-san one day and you will make a good impression; also, you will love it if, indeed, you are able to visit it as it is breathtakingly beautiful. Similarities you can use as icebreakers include hinamatsuri, a doll festival like we have kolu in South India and the use of rice as a staple food. They even use rice balls for their death ceremonies like we do in India.
Wait to be seated at restaurants and meetings and ask where before you sit. Bow many times and thank profusely. It goes down well with the Japanese.
By the time I got back from a recent trip to Japan, I had really let the culture seep through my skin because I found myself even bowing on the telephone!
It was funny in retrospect, but remember, never make fun of another culture; laugh with them, never at them . And I have only ever allowed laughing at one person: Myself. It works in the global Indian cultural context.