For shore duty my last year in the navy, surprisingly my orders read to report as an instructor in cross cultural communications on the naval base at Coronado Island, offshore from San Diego. That meant getting oriented to the subject myself before working with small groups of diverse personnel deploying for special assignments with some diplomatic sensitivity.
This was 1975 and sounds a lot more the like movies than it was. It basically meant that the navy didn’t want its personnel acting like “ugly Americans” and therefore implemented a pilot program to increase appreciation for differences in how cultures approach matters of business and government.
One of the instructors was LT Chuck Piper, a Harvard graduate invited by the navy to help form the curriculum. One day in class, someone asked Chuck, “What was your favorite class at Harvard?” He replied, “lunch” and then went on to say that lunch was a time that students could sit and brown bag with favorite faculty members and talk.
One of the units in the curriculum Chuck implemented at Coronado told of a scenario where an American businessman went into the office of a Japanese executive and saw the executive gazing out the window. The American felt free to interrupt the Japanese executive because gazing out the window meant that one was “doing nothing.”
Later, someone told the American that to the Japanese, looking out a window is not “doing nothing” and that some of the most important decisions take place in those meditative moments that do not look practical and utilitarian. The Japanese executives operated this way and knew not to interrupt someone looking out a window.
I don’t say this to shame Americans, simply to say that getting things done can take a lot of strange forms. Considering that after World War II and our help in the reconstruction of Japan, they took off and eclipsed us with some of their business innovations—so much so that we became students of them—it’s good to see that not everyone gets to the bottom line in the same way by appearances. There’s risk in that, very healthy one I might add!
(pleasureteam note: Thanks to Brian for a great reminder that we may be quite busy even when we don’t appear to be. Teachers who use active learning, for example, are sometimes chided for “not teaching” when they hand their classrooms over to students for group work, even though the work is carefully constructed and guided. Do you have any examples of times when you are busy without seeming so to others?)