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.