Saturday, May 23, 2009

When Confession is Bad For the Soul

A lot of my tales from working at a Japanese office will likely focus on what other people did rather than one what I did. However, I don't want anyone to think I believed I was perfect and didn't make my fair share of mistakes. One of the problems one has working in a cross-cultural situation is that there are varying expectations on both sides and each assumes the other knows the score and will act accordingly. This results in a lot of disappointment on both sides.

I'm of two minds about cross-cultural working. One is that a company which employs foreigners must understand that they are not Japanese and cannot be expected to comply with the unspoken "rules" of the company. Any part of the culture which they want foreign employees to adhere to should be explicitly stated before a work contract is signed. Unfortunately, one aspect of Japanese business culture is that they don't see contracts as binding nor do they feel it's necessary to offer up an accurate job description.

The other part of my thinking on this matter is that those who live and work in foreign cultures should do their best to try and compromise in reasonable situations to fit with the culture. However, I've seen far too many situations where those who make the compromise are simply walked all over or expected to abandon their principles entirely. Just because Japanese employees are willing to offer up their free time to the company without compensation and to take less than half of the holidays they are entitled to is no reason to expect foreign employees to do so as well. I don't mind the expansion of job responsibility to include things like helping clean up around New Year's holidays, or even requests to work extra hours and be comped for them later, but I draw the line at becoming the company's bitch.

At any rate, after I'd worked at my former company for quite some time, I was able to better anticipate certain things. I knew what the Japanese wanted in certain situations and had the choice to comply or not. To be honest, more often than not, I didn't comply because I felt fairly disconnected from the rest of the company due to the fact that I was treated as the mentally deficient stepchild that was to be locked in the basement when company came round. Neither my boss nor I were treated to the perks of the Japanese staff, yet we were expected to carry out the same responsibilities. You'd be surprised how not offering someone a carrot will make them fail to respond to the stick.

One aspect in particular that I learned to predict after about 6-8 years with the same tinpot dictator of a president was how he would respond to mistakes. That is to say, he'd overreact and behave in the most hysterical fashion, particularly if that mistake was made by a foreigner. For example, one temporary employee came in and ate a carrot for breakfast at his desk one day and wasn't admonished. When that same employee took the further step of eating a bowl of cereal at his desk, the president went off on him and docked him a half hour's pay for his failure to understand that this was just not done. Mind you, I think that the president had every right to admonish him for having a sit down meal on the company's dime, but I think that there was a better way to handle it and that docking someones pay that much for what probably cost the company no more than 10 minutes was over the top. He could have simply asked him to make up the 10 minutes by taking a shorter lunch or staying 10 minutes late. Going ballistic didn't really do much in the way of smoothing cross-cultural understanding.

After years of the president's overreactions and sledgehammer punishment for minor infractions on the part of foreign employees who unwittingly made mistakes, I knew what sort of response certain errors might receive. Unilateral punishment for very human occurrences or misunderstandings in which everyone paid the price were not the least bit uncommon.

On Saturdays, I worked completely alone in the office so no one was around to witness an accident I had one day. I was eating lunch at my desk with a bottle of Diet Coke when I bumped the bottle and about 1/3 of it spilled into the keyboard on my ancient PC. Note that the foreigners were using 10-year-old (or more) Windows '95 computers while the Japanese staff had updated Windows XP machines. That meant that I couldn't have easily purchased a replacement keyboard, nor could the company without some digging through shops that kept antiques in stock.

I knew that there was a chance that the keyboard might dry out and work fine if I turned it upside down, let the Coke drain out, and allowed it to dry thoroughly. Because I had to work the rest of the day, I borrowed a keyboard from a computer that wasn't going to be used by anyone until the following Monday and set mine aside to dry. As I processed what had happened, I decided that it would be best if I did not confess in the event that the keyboard was ruined.

Before I go any further, let me say that, except for this one incident, I never failed to own up to a mistake I made on the job. If I screwed up, I told my boss that it was my error. And the truth is that I would normally confess to this type of accident as well and pay for a replacement out of my own pocket in the event that the keyboard was ruined. I had no problem with that possibility.

The almost certain possibility that I had a problem with was the type of punishment that would have followed a confession. That is, the president would almost certainly ban all foreign employees from drinking anything at their desks. Since we were conducting tests with students by telephone which required us to talk for hours, this would be a pretty serious punishment causing discomfort for all. Dry throats and mouths were not the least bit uncommon. If I told the president that I spilled a drink and ruined equipment, I was sure everyone would suffer for my little bump of a Coke bottle.

At the end of the day, I reattached my moist keyboard to my powered down machine and put the intact one back on the computer I borrowed it from and left for the weekend. When I came back on Tuesday, it had dried out and was working fine, so there wasn't a problem. However, had it failed to work upon my return, I would have simply claimed that the old thing had given up the ghost after so many years of use.

I'm not happy that I was planning to lie. Lying is completely not in my nature and I am awful at it. When I think about this incident though, I believe that it illustrates all too well how some people bring out the worst behavior in others by their abuse of power or disproportionate reactions to very human mistakes. If the president weren't so overbearing and unfair in his responses, I would never have pondered hiding the truth. The reason I could always own up to every other mistake I made without hesitation was that work errors were reported directly to my Australian boss and not to the president. Since he was a good boss who knew that no one was perfect, I never worried that any admission of an error would garner a disproportionate response from him.

6 comments:

Emsk said...

This is a great series of blog posts. I'm in a celebratory mood today - it's one year since I left Aeon! It's all receding into the mists of time and it's wonderful. Of course that also means it's a whole year since I've seen people I like very much, and a year since my week after leaving Aeon when I experienced 'my Japan'.

I agree with you on cross-cultural working practices. Sometimes I think it's necessary to put in an extra bit and show some goodwill, and in mono-cultural settings too. My manager in London, for instance, always says thank you if I go the extra mile without remuneration being involved. But time and time again at Aeon I wondered why both sides weren't given better cultural training, especially the Japanese workers. It's disheartening to find out your Japanese manager thinks you're a lazy git because you leave 20 minutes after your paid time ends, when two weeks before your English manager was wondering why you were still in the office after 10 and if it might be because you didn't have any friends!

True to say, even with a big reputable company like Aeon - and I'll always say it's one of the best ones to work for - you're not given the whole picture. This was demonstrated to me when we received a card co-worker's replacement in Australia. I emailed him to see if he had any questions as my co-worker herself was up to her eyeballs. However, the head teacher asked me not to say anything about the job in case it put him off.

The biggest problem we had regarded the free time on our schedules. At the time Aeon had us working a 29.5 hour week which allowed them to say we were part-time workers and avoid paying anything other than basic health insurance. At the initial training, the American trainers explained that this free timeon our schedule was exactly what it looked like, but when I got to my school I found myself on the receiving end of bad vibes whenever I took advantage of this. I asked the trainer again and he said that I shouldn't feel bad about taking the three hours off that was on my schedule one afternoon, and that I should see it for being out of my comfort zone. This continued to be a bugbear with my manager so I sat down with her and told her what I'd been told at the training, showing her the schedule I'd been given during training week. I explained to her that I was sorry they hadn't given her the same information, but that I'd like to have this time to myself. In return I would never run off after a class if a student wanted to talk to me and I wouldn't return to the school at the last minute.

The terrible thing is that foreign teachers are better paid than the managers, who in my honest opinion should be paid higher as their job does seem much harder than ours. But that doesn't mean that we should become the company bitch. In the light of this I can see why managers at eikawas get pissed off with the foreign teachers, but the fault must surely lie with the rule makers at the top who are demonstrating a total lack of regard for their Japanese subordinates.

One day I had the chance to meet with a high-up person at company HQ. I put it to her that the job wasn't exactly as it had been described at the glossy presentation in the swanky London hotel. She looked at me as if I'd suggested she might like to... I don't know... pull a sickie!

Orchid64 said...

Your story tells a lot about the working situation in Japan, both for foreigners and the Japanese.

For one thing, the companies rig the contracts so they can deny you benefits, then they get upset when you work the hours as stated on those contracts rather than give over the time to the company for free. Even when you occasionally give the students more time or do a little extra, it's not enough for the Japanese coworkers. They want you to put in regular unpaid time.

Frankly, though I agree that the Japanese staff deserve to be paid better, it's another issue entirely. All employees are paid what the market will bear. Second generation Peruvians who work in Japan are paid 150,000 yen a month (or less) for hard work in factories and they definitely deserve to be paid more for the hours they put in. However, the market only bears low wages.

Native English speakers in Japan are a market just like any other. The salaries are not comparative to any other job and unrelated to what is deserved. It's not right that many managers, office ladies, etc. are not well-paid, but it reflects what the market in Japan will bear. It has nothing to do with what we are paid. Their resentment is understandable, but badly placed. If they don't like the pay, they should seek work at a company or profession where the market is more competitive.

The bottom line is that the skill level of managing a school is not high. It's hard, yes. It's stressful, yes. But, the skill level required isn't beyond most people without an education higher than high school. They offer canned sales pitches to interested parties. They deal with appointments and scheduling. They handle time cards. The people who manage the schools don't develop curriculum, write texts, or even the contracts the teachers sign. They're essentially sales people with secretarial and the occasional janitorial duties. The job sucks, but so do a lot of lesser-paid jobs like working in a factory, but that has nothing to do with us or what we are paid or how we work. Essentially, they want us to suffer because they suffer. What's the point in that? It doesn't improve their situation if ours is harder. It's not like they'll be paid more if we work overtime for free.

Sherry said...

You shouldn't feel bad over the key board at all, and not just because it worked out fine. It is a cross-cultural thing that you got totally right even if you didn't know it at the time. You lied by omission and that is very much the Japanese way. I am sure you have been here long enough to totally understand what I mean by that.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Sherry, and thanks for your comment.

Yes, I was thinking when I wrote that that a Japanese person would have done what I did without hesitation even if the keyboard had been broken. They would simply have followed the path of least conflict and difficulty which would have been to lie. I even thought of saying that a Japanese person would have hid the truth without hesitation, but I was concerned that it'd come across as a racist or pejorative statement to people who don't understand the culture and I didn't want to explain it in an already overly long post.

I understand that they do this and why they do it, but I can't casually lie to people in order to smooth the path, particularly when I'm doing it to make my life easier. Also, I really don't want to start thinking that it's OK for me to lie because that is what people in this culture do. At the very least, I want to keep my moral debating alive. ;-)

Sherry said...

I totally understand your points and wanting to keep your moral debate alive. It is something I struggled with for a long time and still do on occasion. However, I think that acting that way doesn't bother me as much as I am married to a Japanese man and have half Japanese children who suffer the consequences of my actions so I have to take a "when in Rome..." attitude about a lot of things that really bother me to protect them. I don't suffer because I don't care about other's reactions to me, but I do care about my family as they get hit harder by it.

Not that there aren't any consequences for you and your husband, but for you perhaps it is easier to play the "gaijin card," you know?

Hum, I never thought about that being taken as a racist statement, although I see your point. It certainly could be for those unfamiliar with Japan, however, it is very much a fact of life here in my opinion.

Girl Japan said...

"The bottom line is that the skill level of managing a school is not high. It's hard, yes. It's stressful, yes. But, the skill level required isn't beyond most people without an education higher than high school. They offer canned sales pitches to interested parties. They deal with appointments and scheduling. They handle time cards. The people who manage the schools don't develop curriculum, write texts, or even the contracts the teachers sign. They're essentially sales people with secretarial and the occasional janitorial duties. The job sucks, but so do a lot of lesser-paid jobs like working in a factory, but that has nothing to do with us or what we are paid or how we work. Essentially, they want us to suffer because they suffer. What's the point in that? It doesn't improve their situation if ours is harder. It's not like they'll be paid more if we work overtime for free."

I could not agree with this more- I do not feel sorry for them one bit- they should not have accepted the low pay or the job- not fair to dish crap on who are paid for the expertise- English teacher, educated, etc.

I also don't believe in do-as-the-Romans do either. I think we should be culturally aware but I am not going to "change myself" as a being JUST because my husband happens to be Japanese, I have to be myself otherwise you end up fighting with our split-personalities. lol, you know what I mean?

For Sherry, I can see her bending a bit for her children for their behalf but we should still be ourselves just more aware, I guess?