Business Etiquette in Cultures with Rabidly Paranoid Fear of Failure

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How to Deflect Others From Attacking You By Attacking First

From a Culture in which a Girl Committed Suicide for Getting ONE A-Minus

“Ann” had cried with gratitude because of the great process improvement I gave her. Later she attacked me for “mistakes” her department made. She experienced unbearable personal tension at perceived errors.

I thought I had a wonderful working relationship with “Ann” (not her real name, but it was similar), after she cried with gratitude when the first of seven perfect years of our business project came off like a bang. We had saved thousands of dollars of labor costs by automating a yearly open enrollment process that had previously required general disruption of departmental routine. Teams of clerical workers used to have to go through an annual rush agony to hand calculate yearly updates of health contributions for 1,500 employees’ out of pocket expenses, to be reported to a large, external retirement agency.

After Ann’s gratitude, imagine my surprise, when, during a meeting years later, she viciously attacked me in front of other colleagues while claiming that I had made “mistakes”. It seemed to be a matter that Ann had experienced culturally dictated, unbearable tension after her department had made errors in specifications they had to issue, in a process that required her whole department to conduct a detailed analysis before we issued a large yearly report a to an outside agency.

“In [the Foreign Country], there is great fear of failure and mistakes in front of other people. It is better to do nothing and avoid being criticized than to taste the humiliation of failure. As a result, there are things we wanted to do, but did not, and often regret.”The report process was such that when Ann’s department established a new benefits calculation method for a succeeding year, she would quote me a set of rules for the calculations in tandem with a table of employee and employer contributions to monthly health costs. There were about 25 categories based on employee family relationship and health plan selection, with two-letter codes for provider, plan and description. These tables, printed on portrait orientation, legal paper, were the same ones the employees would receive to help them understand their new year’s monthly charges.

Every year when Ann would give me the new definitions, I would first analyze the specifications for illogical outcomes, and return the specifications with the anomalies highlighted in red text. I would patiently explain the error in the definitions that Ann’s department had provided.

Once we had reconciled the mistakes, I would issue a mega spreadsheet showing all 1,500 subscribers. Each record completely detailed the complex calculations necessary to prove the employer and employees, monthly charges, in up to 20 columns of numeric detail. Each column was dedicated to one of the complex calculation factors and steps. I sorted the report by groups with similar calculations so that the numbers displayed identical results for the groups, requiring only a single calculator check for each group. Each line of the report was displayed in one of two alternating background colors for easy reading.

The report was so large that it was required to print out two ledger size pieces of paper for each page, cut the inner page margins for both pages so columns abutted without interruption, and hand tape the pages together. Each page was more than 3 feet wide. The reports were up to 25 pages long. As I would carry the printed output to Ann’s office, I realized that it was the largest format report I had ever seen.

After I issued each year’s first report, benefits administration workers at several levels, up-to-and-including the section director would successively hand calculate each group and satisfy themselves that the numbers were correct.

“In America, you can make mistakes, fail, and it doesn’t matter. It is a fundamental feeling that to sometimes be incorrect is natural. In addition, rather than thinking about mistakes and failures, Americans have curiosity and say, ‘Let’s try anyway!’ “IT WOULD NOT INFREQUENTLY HAPPEN that, in the process of conducting the calculator audit, the department discovered an error in the specifications it had issued. I always correctly implemented the specifications I was given; the fault was always in the specifications. The calculations underlying the report would have to be altered for the newer, more correct specifications. The data processing was comprehensively designed, so that little was required but altering the calculation. The desktop database continued automatically sorting the records in calculation groups for auditing convenience. The extra-wide report would then have to be specially printed and taped together, a process requiring up to 2 hours per episode.

HERE WAS WHERE “ANN” CLAIMED THAT I MADE A MISTAKE. It was initially shocking, being attacked in a meeting, years later, as if I had committed errors; whereas the reality was that I had produced 7 years of perfect output of 1,500 records without a single reported error.

I just shrugged off the bizarre behavior to a limitation of Ann’s culture: Her father and mother were from different but geographically adjacent, culturally related countries. Both of the cultures are noted for the cited, rabidly paranoid fear of failure. My shorthand for the phenomenon was to note the case of a girl from that general cultural region, who committed suicide because, after years of getting straight A report cards in her rigorous academic career regimen, she got a single A-Minus grade.

Now there is independent corroboration of the phenomenon. In “10 [Foreign Country] Tips for Visiting America“, from a Google translation of an actual travel article from one of the relevant countries in the native language, item #10 states:

10. But darn it all, they’re so weirdly optimistic you just can’t stay irritated at them.

In [the Foreign Country], there is great fear of failure and mistakes in front of other people. It is better to do nothing and avoid being criticized than to taste the humiliation of failure. As a result, there are things we wanted to do, but did not, and often regret.

In America, you can make mistakes, fail, and it doesn’t matter. It is a fundamental feeling that to sometimes be incorrect is natural. In addition, rather than thinking about mistakes and failures, Americans have curiosity and say, “Let’s try anyway!”

Life’s MeaningIkiru (1952) Disregarding risk of criticism, a bureaucrat with a fatal disease defies conventional governmental intransigence, drives through a project to give a park to people in a poor neighborhood. His colleagues admire his risk-taking and reflect on their own ineffectiveness at his funeral dinner.I got the general sense of extreme fear of failure, after other incidents of being attacked by people of these cultures for “making mistakes” that our culture would consider part of the ordinary give and take of business relations. I had a long-term position at the work place in which principal accountants accepted my work simply on my say-so. My name was well-known, my reputation was high, and my work was nearly flawless. Accounting supervisors whose names I never knew, whom I only knew by appearance, would greet me on the street by my name. My work was characterized by rigorous error detection, control and documentation to prevent similar errors recurring.

In the infinitesimal number of instances in which an error crept through, my rough estimate was that 40% of the time the error was mine, and 60% of the time the mistake was on the part of my partner-clients. My standard spiel when first reporting news of an error to colleagues was to diffuse the blame-game and tell them that it didn’t matter who was at fault, we must simply, resolutely solve the problem so that we all would come out looking good.

It’s sad to see such cultural rigidity, so that there is an irresistible urge to attack others so the unwelcome spotlight on one’s own mistakes may be deflected instead upon others. These cultures have so many accomplishments and virtues specific to their proud heritages. It’s a real shame they don’t have a legacy of promoting their successes and accepting the limitations of well-intentioned, imperfect human beings.

Years later, I met Ann in public. She had since retired. In my wife’s presence, she greeted me with extreme warmth. She very courteously asked my wife for permission to kiss me. It was sad that our relationship had been flawed by such a bizarre outburst.

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way. Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. CCC §2478