I have a colleague in Japan, “Kando-san,” who is the most literal person I’ve ever met. No metaphor can penetrate, no comparison illuminate. He does not read between the lines.
Being a person who operates most comfortably in the abstract, I’ve had some painful moments in communicating with him, in both English and Japanese. “I don’t understand,” he says, in response to some nascent idea. “I have no concept of this.” If he wants a quality assessment sheet about widget B, and you show him a quality assessment sheet about widget A as a concept, he’ll look at the details and tell you it’s entirely unrelated and useless. “It could not be used for our team,” he says. “No.” If you give him work half-finished to illustrate your thinking, he remarks only on the missing pieces and says it’s no good. If you tell him you’ll deliver something the last week of March, he’ll start pinging you on the Monday to find out where it is.
I try to breathe deeply and count to ten before I respond. (I don’t always succeed.)
I’ve finally learned to keep my metadata to myself. I give him an exact date and time zone, and never deliver early or late, if I can help it. I don’t show him work in progress. And I simply borrow from the widget A sheet when making the widget B sheet, and then give it to him to review.
That is when Kando-san shines. His feedback is perceptive and blunt. Where I’m sloppy, he demands precision. For every dreamy, visionary idea, he insists on linkage to an actionable task and a benchmark.
After two years of working together, we’ve finally reached a delicate symbiosis. He relies on me as a fountain of ideas, and I rely on him as ballast.
I’m going to Osaka next week. In our weekly video conference, Kando-san heard my concern about radioactive chemicals in the air, water, and food, and he laughed. “We are experiencing nothing different here. There are no lines, no shortages. Foreigners are very scared. Don’t mind strange rumors. I’ve studied radioactivity a lot from NHK TV programs.” Kando-san wouldn’t lie. I don’t think he knows how.