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Don't Waste My Time!

One of many universal business etiquette rules: Be considerate of other people’s time.

But that may look different according to context.

Rude or Polite?

A friend recently showed me an exchange between two people on the professional networking site, LinkedIn. One lived and worked in an Asian country and the other one came from a Western background. I’ll call the Asian person Ashok and the Western person Jamie.

Ashok did not open with his profile summary before requesting from Jamie a professional favor. Since he did not make a case for why Jamie should help him, Jamie felt put off at having to scan his profile and do that work for him. He might have sent the same message to hundreds of people without showing any interest in how they might benefit from working with him. In response, Jamie told Ashok that he was being rude.

But Ashok did not see things that way. He replied that the LinkedIn profile already listed that basic information like his name, work place, and his contact information. He felt it would have been rude to repeat the same information she could easily look up. For him, that was wasting her time.

What seemed like abruptness to Jamie was in fact Ashok’s way of showing concern for Jamie’s time. It was his effort to be polite, not rude. Jamie and Ashok were able to clear up their differences online, but you may not have that luxury. These kinds of misunderstandings can turn into missed opportunities.

Different Ideas of “Being Polite”

This electronic exchange demonstrates that across cultures ideas of “being polite” and “showing concern” for the other person can be at odds.

And that can turn into a trap when both parties expect the other’s considerate behavior to manifest in similar ways.

After reading this exchange I thought, “I’ve been there!”

Like Ashok, I thought that repeating the information in written applications would come off to potential employers as a waste of time or an insult to their intelligence. When I went on interviews in my previous profession, I didn’t repeat the information from my resume or cover letter. I remember thinking, “They went to the trouble to fly me out and we only had a packed day and a half to get to know each other. Why would I repeat myself?” With that thought, I did not go out of my way to repeat my teaching philosophy or my research agenda as they appeared on paper. I always tried to go deeper or give it a new twist, but without first providing the introduction, which was part of the written application material.

The Consequence

My mistake was that while I was in the American job market I still operated under Japanese norms, which were similar to Ashok’s. The hiring committee expected me to demonstrate the case for hiring me that I made in my application. When I did not re-enact the version of me who appeared on paper, it raised red flags about my ‘consistency.’ To an American employer, I appeared less viable as a candidate.

The Cause

It is risky to rely too heavily on your own ability to ascertain people’s intentions, particularly in business situations. Sometimes it comes down to individual personalities, and sometimes it’s a misunderstanding stemming from cultural differences. That difference might hit you without warning even if you are a generally observant and sensitive person.

Most of us don’t have the luxury to make multiple mistakes. If you experience a pattern of “odd interactions” with many people sharing the same background, it’s a good time to examine cultural differences. Bring on board a cultural consultant specializing in that region or culture to preempt mishaps.


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