How important is it to know your audience? Extremely important if you are dealing with a culture different than your own. A few weeks ago, my Father told the following story to me about the importance of knowing your audience…
“We were attached to the Special Operations Command; our area of responsibility was primarily the South Pacific and Near East. We were preparing for our first military mission in Japan, to participate in a joint operation exercise with the Japanese military. So, we were deeply involved in learning as much as we could of their history, culture and customs. Early in our training, the importance of exchanging of business cards in the Japanese culture was explained to us. Not only did you need to have a card, there was the right and wrong way to present your card, and how to handle ones you receive. For example: when given a card you should hold the card in both hands, study it for a moment, bow and thank the giver and then place it in your shirt pocket, next to your heart, all as a sign of respect. As we would be meeting and working with high ranking military and civilian members of the government, business cards were necessities for us.
This quickly became a game of who could design the most impressive business card. Every time someone came in with their newest printing of cards, those of a lesser quality felt obliged to scrap their old ones and try to match or improve theirs. It quickly went from standard weight paper with black printing, to top shelf weight and water marked paper, with multicolored designs, titles, phone numbers, fax numbers etc.
As I considered what my card should look like, I decided to wait until the frenzy was over so I would only have to pay for one and not multiple printings. I also decided that less was better and so had my cards made with a Crest on top, rank and name in the middle, and fax and phone number on the bottom, that’s it. Because the minimum order of cards was something like six hundred, and I could never imagine giving out that number, I decided to have a friends name put on half of them to save him some money. To be honest, I was embarrassed to show my simple card to my associates so simply said, “Yes, I have some cards,” when asked.
There were a number of social events before the start of the exercise where we were able to test our newly learned cultural and customs skills. Upon meeting in the Japanese culture, an “underling” of sorts is put in front to accept a card from someone. Unfortunately, when my commander was introduced before I was, it was assumed that I was the commander and he the underling, instead of the other way around.
As I gave my card to the person to pass on to his superior, the man took it in both hands, and with eyes widened exclaimed, “Oh-so Pederson-son!” He then with much reverence bowed even lower to his superior and presented my card. The superior had much the same reaction as the first.
Throughout the exercise, I almost exhausted my supply of cards. At times, I had dozens of people asking for a card. My friend, with whom I shared my cards, also had a similar experience. Needless to say, I surprised at the popularity of our cards.
However, my commander and other egocentric types were not only surprised but a bit miffed. Since both my friend and I were large of stature and graying, they soon decided that the reverence the Japanese hold for their elders was the reason for our popularity.
Even after the exercise began, I was still sought out for a card, to such an extent that I had to hold back a few for the festivities following the end of the exercise. By the end of the exercise my friend and I were completely out of cards, the only ones I know of that were. This popularity continued to rankle my supervisors.
Upon returning home, I did some more research and found the reason for my friend’s and my instant popularity in Japan. I read, a card presented to someone in Japan with nothing but their name tells the receiver; “This person is so important that everyone knows who they are,” at least in the country from where they came from. Our simple cards to the Japanese were equivalent to a card from the President of the United States, who only needs the presidential seal and his name on it.
I never did share this information with my egocentric supervisors.”