The Importance of What is NOT Said

Have you seen this video of President Trump shaking Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand for 19 seconds? Other than being the most awkward handshake of all time, there are some cultural implications to this interesting interaction.

As you watch, notice Trump’s firm handshake, facing the press, Abe’s glancing toward Trump, suggesting they look at each other. Abe’s facial expression at the end indicating that the time was an eternity.

Once we stop cringing, we can gather some cultural insight. Much of what is communicated is non-verbal, like gestures, facial expressions, personal space, and eye contact. In some cultures, communication relies heavily on the words since the purpose of communication for them is to explicitly exchange information to “tell it like it is.” The United States in general is fairly direct, so here we rely on the spoken and written words to communicate our thoughts. Our “shoes” are direct communication shoes.

In other cultures, including Japanese, communication relies more on what is not said. Group-oriented cultures tend to build an identity based on shared experiences, valuing harmony and avoiding confrontation. People are likely to infer, suggest, and imply rather than saying something directly. The goal of communication is to preserve and strengthen the relationship. Their “shoes” are indirect communication shoes.

In order to interact effectively across these differences, one should be knowledgeable about the opposite shoes, learning to read facial expressions and understand the appropriate use of gestures.

Generally speaking Japan is a formal and indirect communication-based culture. Gestures are more important, such as bowing as an appropriate form of greeting. Different types of bowing signify levels of respect. Remember when President Obama bowed to the Japanese Emperor in 2009? He was skewered in some US media as acting treasonous, showing deference to the emperor and belittling America’s power. However, his actions were praised by Japanese etiquette experts as “natural and appropriate” for the occasion.

Back to Trump and Abe’s handshake. In US business situations, a strong handshake is viewed positively as a sign of confidence and the quality of the handshake matters. While on the surface this unending forceful handshake is amusing and not memorable, the continued inattention to cultural protocol could potentially create an underlying disrespect that in times of conflict could exacerbate a tense interaction.

Learning about appropriate greetings can avoid embarrassment, ensure a more positive interaction, and build strong relationships for future collaboration.

-Melinda and Sarah 

The Majority Minority

photo taken from the Slate article linked below

photo taken from the Slate article linked below

What kind of “shoes”, or cultural identities, are worn in the US today, and what will be worn in the future?

The US is moving from a White majority to a plurality of racial and ethnic groups. Even though the non-Hispanic White population currently accounts for more than 50% of the population, this is projected to drop to 44% between 2030 and 2043. At this point the US essentially becomes a “majority minority” nation, with no single group dominating the racial and ethnic makeup.

The “multi-racial” group is projected to be the fastest growing – 2.5% in 2014 to 6.2% in 2044, followed by the Asian population at 5.4%-9.3%, and the Hispanic population at 17.9%-29%.

We have already seen this shift in our public schools. In our schools and in our workplaces, we are challenged to expand our empathy and learn how to live and work better together as a more diverse community and nation.

We have the opportunity to change shoes on a daily basis with strangers, friends, coworkers, students, employees, and peers. We need the skills to move from awareness, to understanding, to competence in intercultural communication – with more urgency than ever.

Think about your ways of learning about other shoes – what works? We plan to share some tips, and would like to hear from you!


Melinda and Sarah

The Shoes

Have you ever accidentally put your shoes on the wrong feet?


Bet that didn’t feel very good.


We wear our shoes like our cultural identity. Others wear their shoes just as comfortably as you do, and they can be very different shoes.


When we put on someone else’s shoes, we might experience that uncomfortable feeling of having our shoes on the wrong feet.


Why would we want to change our shoes? To better understand one another. To enhance our self-awareness of our own cultural framework and views on the world. To try on another person’s shoes and see what they see. Hopefully, they will be interested in wearing your shoes and learning your perspective too. This is how we build a bridge of understanding to get along and live, work, and be better together.


Through this blog, we hope to create a dialogue addressing the importance of culture and critical thinking when working across cultural boundaries. This involves global leadership at the individual, organizational, and national levels. We want to have difficult conversations that help us engage with each other and create mutual understanding.


To be a good citizen, it's important to be able to put yourself in other people's shoes and see the big picture. If everything you see is rooted in your own identity, that becomes difficult or impossible.

– Eli Pariser



Melinda and Sarah