Globalization challenges our cultural understandings, leading to the
need to reconceptualize the concept of culture and reconsider modern-day
influences on cultural norms. In a recent study, Nathaniel Simmons of Western
Governors University in Columbus, Ohio, examines the cultural premises that influence
intercultural privacy management when two cultures have different ideas about
how to manage their private information.
Using the framework of Communication Privacy Management (CPM) theory,
Simmons examined how culture affects privacy negotiation processes. The first CPM
supposition is that people believe private information belongs to them. The
second describes a boundary metaphor to illustrate distinctions between private
information and public relationships. People make these boundaries less
permeable to protect their private information. The third supposition states
that people believe private information is owned or co-owned with others, which
leads to a desire for boundary control as individuals reveal and conceal
information. The fourth is that people manage private information using a
rule-based management system in boundary negotiation. Finally, CPM treats
private information and disclosure as dialectic in nature—people construct
rules based on their gender, motivation, perceived risks and benefits, context,
and culture. Specifically, Simmons studied the privacy boundary management
among English-language teachers (ELTs) and their Japanese coworkers (JCWs).
Simmons conducted in-depth interviews
with 39 ELTs working in Japan and 38 of their JCWs. The interviews were
conducted in person, through Skype, and as a last resort via email. He found
participants using a snowball technique that included recruiting people via an
English-teaching conference, Facebook groups, and cold calls to schools and
ELT-recruiting organizations. The researcher himself was an ELT at a junior
high school, which provided a strong network to recruit participants. As part of
a larger project on intercultural relationships between ELTs and JCWs, he
advertised the study as one that sought to learn more about communication
between ELTs and JCWs in the Japanese workplace.
Using cultural discourse analysis, Simmons
uncovered perspectives about privacy from both the ELTs and the JCWs. “As I
spoke with ELTs and JCWs alike, I genuinely understood and felt their workplace
frustrations, joys, and challenges,” he writes. “I have been there, I was there. Reflecting upon these
encounters, I realized that this study is not just their story. It is my story.
It is our story.”
Through his research, Simmons found that
ELTs in Japan believe that a “free space” for privacy inquisition by coworkers
violates their sense of entitlement to control and own their private
information. One participant, Ren, defined privacy as boundaries and said, “Even
if you delineate these [privacy] boundaries, they are not going to be taken
seriously.” In other words, explains Simmons, Ren perceived that her Japanese
colleagues disregarded her privacy boundaries.
Another participant, Richard, commented:
because of the cultural divide, a lot of the times when the ELT comes, they are
exotic, just by virtue of being foreign, and usually not Japanese by race. They
tend to get bombarded with a lot of questions up front whereas other [Japanese]
teachers have the opportunity to do this over months, if not years; but the ELT
must do it all in a week.
Participant Edward said he believed that
JCWs view ELTs as a “cultural other” who can be asked any question due to
perceived freedom from cultural boundaries. This conflicts with the ELTs’
cultural premises on how to relate to co-workers, premises that are shared by
Edward and others. Another participant, Daniel, commented on the cultural “free
space” JCWs exhibited in their interactions, noting that their “anything is
okay to ask” attitude was surprising. He explained that no topic was so
shocking that it prevented the Japanese coworkers from wanting to discuss it.
Daniel felt that the JCWs violated his expectations of how coworkers should
Simmons uncovered that ELTs expect
reciprocity in egalitarian workplace relationships. In other words, if the JCWs
are going to ask personal questions about the ELTs’ lives, the JCWs need to
voluntarily share personal information in return.
“All JCWs who participated in this study
demonstrated a concern for ELTs’ well-being; this reflected the importance of
kindness/caring in Japanese culture and a desire to please the other in
interactions,” writes Simmons.
He notes that within Japanese
workplaces, supervisors and team-teachers are placed in caretaking positions to
oversee well-being for ELTs. The JCWs expressed in their interviews that these
helping behaviors are part of an anticipated cultural practice.
On one occasion, an ELT shared a private
health matter with a JCW. Participant Kimura, a team-teacher, said it is better
if coworkers are aware of others’ health status.
Japanese workplace it’s better… other coworkers know your health situation I
think. If you are late for school, the ELT yesterday [at her workplace] he had
a, a cough, and he was coughing often, so maybe he had a sore throat or has a
cold. So, he was late. Is he okay? But, it’s like my current ELT, he don’t
[sic] say anything, so I cannot imagine his bad situation.
Simmons explains that by not disclosing
their health status, ELTs render JCWs unable to imagine their potentially bad
situations, and thus unable to sympathize or help. At the same time, this takes
away the JCWs’ opportunity to fulfill their cultural expectation of how they
should treat the foreign workers.
Culture informs many aspects of people’s
lives, even what they consider to be private. When interacting with people of
different cultures, advises Simmons, it’s best to avoid taking for granted what
is “appropriate” to discuss in the workplace. Instead, he recommends that
people try to understand cultural premises for privacy boundaries and talk with
others about the level of privacy they expect when they share information about
On a broader level, Simmons argues that
people don’t yet have a clear understanding of intercultural privacy management
due to the lack of research where both participants in a conversation
participate within the same study. He explains that this particular study,
highlights the need for intercultural training due to the impact of globalization.