Just a few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a week-long trip to Japan, a place we were excited about visiting for years. Having read so much about the Japanese culture, their passion for their work and their attention to detail, I was sure my experience was going to be enlightening and I was hoping to come back with a list of ways to perform more efficiently at work. What I did not expect was that an incident so insignificant would change my attitude towards life.
On our second day, we were traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto during rush hour on a Shinkansen, and had occupied two seats in a row of three. After a couple of stations, someone who was obviously dressed for work came to sit by us on the unoccupied seat. He had a thin, plastic bag with what I imagined was breakfast from a local vendor. This man was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, as is most of the working class in Japan. Before going past us, he customarily bowed, and sat on his seat.
He then took his bag and placed its contents on the table that was secured to the back of every seat on the train; not just haphazardly, but arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Everything was, at least what looked liked, geometrically aligned with each other and the table. He then took the bag and started straightening it, simultaneously pinching the creases on each side. Once flat, he started folding it onto itself vertically, almost like an accordion. Finally, he took what was now a long, rectangular-shaped folded bag, tied it into a beautiful knot, and put it inside his pocket. It all took less than one minute.
Now I do not know if every single Japanese person is as meticulous as our mystery man, but I do know this. There is something very spiritual in how the Japanese perform their everyday duties – from cleaning the streets with a vacuum cleaner, to standing in a queue; from serving dishes in a fast-food joint, to picking dry leaves from their lawns. And they seem to take the experience of performing that task to a whole new level. Not to mention that the level of cleanliness and aesthetic beauty is really quite different from anywhere else in the world.
Since I have come back from my trip, I have recounted the train incident to every person I know, almost as a representation of all that is Japanese. And every time I tell it, it is like I learn something new. Any work that is done with dedication is enjoyable, you just need to be completely focused, even devoted to it. Every work that is done has to have a start and an end, there is immense beauty in taking a task to its completion. All tasks, if done on a regular basis become a habit, and good habits away from work always ensure a sense of integrity at work. And finally, an inherent sense of respect for everyone and everything around you makes it easy to be grateful towards your work and life, in general.
We have so many varied cultures across the world, and so many of these have been around for years. It is incredible what each culture teaches its people and how these values get imbibed from one generation to another. While some amongst us choose to see the negative aspects in cultures differing from their own, it is worthwhile to take a fresh perspective and look at the people around you. You never know when a seemingly minor incident could change your entire attitude towards life!
What is your experience with varied cultures? Do you try to inculcate all the good values from the diversity in your workplace? Do you encourage your employees and peers to discuss aspects of their cultural ethos that might make a positive impact on their work? I would love to hear your thoughts.