When I first landed in Japan, I was stumped (and not too mildly amused) by the term “Alien registration”. This greets the serpentine queue made up of people of different nationalities, races, gender, ages, creed and color (with the possible exception of Green, which the word Alien typically conjures up), at the immigration counters. And a good proportion of the people making up the queue are of Japanese origin.
As an expat/alien trying to market/communicate multiple propositions to a culture that is completely different to what I grew up with; that opened up a commonsensical line of thought.
Alien is not necessarily a group/tribe that is completely different from me. It could even be a sub-group of an otherwise similar group to which I belong. I am an Indian male and married, but an Indian senior citizen or a single mom in India is an alien culture to me. So to understand them and to communicate with them (or any other group that i don’t belong to), is as good as dealing with an “Alien Culture”.
Drawing parallels to my attempts at navigating the exciting culture and place that Japan is; these are the five things that i found handy as an everyday marketer to alien cultures:
Atlas: It becomes easier to get around a place, if you have an atlas (Tokyo Atlas is my constant companion) handy. In marketing/communication parley it can be any of the information sources – books, blogs, websites, newspaper articles, special interest magazines, researches, sociology studies, fiction, movies, music, etc. – created about or by or for the “alien cultures” you are trying to market. These pieces bring in the various coordinates that help you with the lay of the land. Just like the Atlas which helps you navigate from point A to point B; these information sources facilitate your journey of understanding from one point to another.
Language: ASK (Arigato, Sumimasen, Konnichiwa) and you shall get attention, is what I realized on the first day in my new homeland. Having access to a well laid atlas alone doesn’t suffice. To connect well, you need to have an understanding of the language or “lingo” of the alien culture. Their terminology, catch-phrases, signs, icons – both verbal and non-verbal; give you a grip of the culture group’s workings and help you understand them better.
Interpreter: An interpreter gives you a context to the goings on; and helps you with the sub-text and subtleties of the happenings and argot of the sub-group. They help you with the reason-whys and also nuggets and nuances that will otherwise take years of arduous exploration to uncover. Find one, they could be the equivalent of a friendly bartender, and your journey to unlocking the alien culture’s hearts and minds is 2/3rds complete.
Experimentation: With all the above at your disposal, you may still not be able to break new-ground unless there is a streak of experimentation in you. One needs to go out and explore, than be confined to the desk or dwelling (of the mind variety). Go out. Do stuff. Never lose an opportunity to experience things that are specific to the alien culture. Watch a game of baseball, if your creaky and ageing bones won’t allow you to swing a bat. Lose a few thousand yen in a Pachinko Slot. Feel what it makes them tick.
Nativity: Never lose the essence of who you are, in your eagerness to become one of “them”. I can never be Japanese by wearing a samurai dress or an American by changing my accent. Give them a break and yourself some respectability. The very reason you are given an opportunity to work across borders (not necessarily geographic) is that you will bring perspective and understandings from your own background or culture group; that will prove synergistic.
First published in CampaignAsia on September 14th, in an abridged form