58.1, February 2011

Organizational Training in Japan: A Case Study of the Spaces of Localization

James Melton


Purpose: The case study described in this article explores a U.S. team's adaptation of organizational training for Japanese audiences, with a particular focus on the team's management of social and physical spaces in which the training took place.

Method: Qualitative research was used in this study, specifically a case study based on ethnological methods including interviews, observations, and collection of relevant documents.

Results: Localization of the social and physical spaces that surround organizational training spaces includes recognizing their potential function as an important site for professional communication, especially in relationship-oriented cultures such as Japan. Beyond the need for this conceptual understanding, localization of organizational training also requires the practical navigation of these spaces. Such facility depends on professional communicators' understanding of proxemics, or the human use of space in cultural contexts, as well as wise reliance on the guidance of cultural insiders.

Conclusions: When professional communicators work to localize organizational training, they must include all relevant communication channels and work to actively manage the physical and social spaces through which relationships are built and information is passed. An awareness of how space is used as a means of communication across cultures is essential.

Keywords: relationships, proxemics, organizational training, localization


Relationship building is an essential process of organizational training in business cultures such as Japan, where it predominates over information sharing as a primary purpose of professional communication (Yamada, 2002). Where the aim of relationship building tends to encourage face-to-face interaction in professional communication, as it does in Japan, the skillful management of the various social and physical contexts where interlocutors meet is a must. Clearly, these practices require a careful approach to the localization of organizational training, localization being the “process of creating or adapting an information product for use in a specific target country or specific target market” (Hoft, 1995, p. 11). Yet, to date, very little of the literature has focused on the professional communicator's management of physical and social spaces in the localization of organizational training and similar types of professional communication across cultures.

This article reports on research that worked to address this gap in the literature: a case study of a team's adaptation of a training program for Japanese audiences. Findings reveal communication in social spaces to be a vital counterpart to formal organizational training in Japan. The professional communicator's understanding of proxemics, or the navigation of space across cultures (Hall, 1966), is shown to be crucial, as is the related ability to collaborate with cultural and linguistic insiders. The practical limitations of professional communication in the absence of face-to-face interaction are also suggested. Finally, the study suggests the need for continued development of theory related to the navigation of physical and social spaces in organizational training.

Literature Review

The boundary between professional and social spaces is typically clear in low-context business cultures such as those in Germany or the United Sates, where meaning is contained primarily in the message itself (Hall, 1976). In such cultural contexts, scholarship focused on designing and giving effective presentations (such as Abela, 2008; Duarte, 2008; Riley & Mackiewicz, 2010) may be sufficient to augment the localization of organizational training, particularly scholarship that includes a focus on presenting in international contexts (Alley, 2003; Hager & Scheiber, 1997). However, in many high-context cultures of Asia and Latin America, where meaning is communicated primarily through the context surrounding the message, professional communication commonly occurs through channels outside the formal information product (Hall, 1976; Honold, 1999; Thatcher, 1999; 2006; Yamada, 2002;).

For this reason, physical and social spaces can be an especially important venue for organizational trainers to build relationships and exchange information with colleagues and audiences. Kim (1999) suggests that the localization of organizational training cannot be limited to the formal training presentation only. He proposes a system of what he calls the “transcultural customization” of training, or the transfer of a training program from one culture to another. Kim attempts to addresses complex issues, such as how the type of training to be undertaken can affect its adaptability for another culture (for example, hard- versus soft-skills training), whether the content itself needs to be changed, and how team roles are best defined (subject matter experts, cultural subject matter experts, customization specialists, translators, etc.). Kim hints at the importance of high-context communication in this process but does not address it specifically: “The transfer of learning in real life is not just a matter of the quality of the course or the achievement level of participants during the class. The work environment and system should support the transfer of learning” (p. 106). McClay and Irwin (2008) also note this necessity in their handbook on training global audiences; yet they do not fully explore the human use of space across cultures as it applies to organizational training.

Intercultural communication scholars have long pointed to culture as a strong influence on the human use of space. Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and one of the founders of the study of intercultural communication, uses the word “language” to describe all patterns through which humans communicate, as reflected in the title of the book The Silent Language (1959). From this premise, Hall established the well-known concepts of high- and low-context communication (1976) and monochronic and polychronic time (1959). Hall (1976) broadens the study of communication from simply “how people express themselves (including shows of emotion),” to “the way [people] think, how they move, how problems are solved, how their cities are planned and laid out, how transportation systems function and are organized, as well as how economic and government systems are put together and function” (pp. 16–17).

A natural application of the concept of high-context communication to organizational training is the study of the human use of space across cultures, or proxemics (Hall, 1966). Hall defines proxemics as “the interrelated observations and theories of man's use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture” (p. 1). Hall (1966) notes cultural differences in the use of space in several areas: the typical distance between individuals engaged in conversation, the typical social spaces in which interlocutors feel comfortable communicating, and the typical boundaries of public versus private space. Individuals are largely unaware of these differences in their own contexts because their own cultural practices have become naturalized (Hall, 1976). Other scholars have followed up on Hall's study of proxemics with a closer look at how it might apply in fields ranging from architecture (Lawson, 2001) to social psychology (Patterson, 1983) to environmental psychology (Aiello, 1987) to human communication studies (Burgoon, Buller, & Woodall, 1996). Yet, the field of professional communication has been slow to examine physical and social space as an important facet of global professional communication contexts.

Some professional communication research has traced the contrasting uses of space in the American and Japanese workplace contexts to underlying cultural values. Yamada (2002) notes that American business tends to emphasize the individual. She points out that the format of a typical American business meeting is one where the participants report on their accomplishments. Japanese business meetings, in contrast, tend to emphasize collective, familial interdependence. Likewise, Yamada notes a contrast in the way offices are set up in Japan: “Instead of dividing office space into individually bounded rooms or cubicles [as is done in the United States] . . . it is left open, in a bullpen” (p. 56). This idea is carried over into the Japanese manager's role: to foster “an environment in which employees perceive themselves as working together for a common goal” (p. 56). The ideal American manager, by contrast, creates what is often called a “level playing field” for individuals (Stewart & Bennett, 1991; Yamada, 2002).

Despite the potential usefulness of such research, the field's understanding of the use of space across cultures is still not well understood in the context of organizational training. Important questions include the following: What role does interaction within social spaces play as a counterpart to formal organizational training? How can professional communicators act interpersonally within these spaces? How can professional communicators effectively collaborate with cultural and linguistic insiders? What theories can be developed in the field of professional communication that are responsive to the cultural complexity of managing the physical and social spaces of organizational training? What are the practical limitations of professional communication when face-to-face interaction is limited, as it is in online contexts? How do the fundamental principles of professional communication relate to the use of space across cultures? In pursuing answers to these questions through research, Hall's (1976) argument that the most taken-for-granted aspects of culture are often the most influential is instructive.


While indicating the need for an exploratory approach, the gaps identified in the review of literature are also relatively specific, suggesting qualitative case study as a research method (Flick, 2002; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Sullivan & Spilka, 1992; Yin, 1994). As elements of the case study, ten audio-recorded interviews were conducted with the three team members, and relevant documents were collected. Team planning meetings over a period of three months were observed, along with several days of training presentations in Japan. Triangulation was used in data gathering and analysis throughout the study. In addition to being an effective research strategy, triangulation was important in mitigating bias (Flick, 2002) because I gained access to the site through one of the participants, who is also related to my wife. Other practices common to qualitative research were also used in the case study, such as protecting participants' anonymity and asking participants to review research findings (Flick, 2002; Yin, 1994). Details of the research process are described below.

Case and Participants

The case was focused on the creation and delivery of face-to-face training in Hawaii and Japan, much of it done with the use of PowerPoint, to groups of about 40 people. The training team described in the case study regularly delivers sales and management training in Asia for a U.S. food company that has annual sales of approximately $400 million. The case began with the training team's first planning meeting in Honolulu and ended with the audience feedback they received following the delivery of training, approximately three months later. This case took place within the larger cycle of training that had been going on for more than five years on a roughly quarterly basis.

The training team was made up of three members. The first participant was a Japanese man named Hiroshi (pseudonyms are used for all participants), in his late thirties, who was not only bilingual but also bicultural, having grown up in both Japan and the United States. The second participant, Keiko, was a Japanese woman in her mid- to late thirties who had moved to the United States as an adult, where she operated her own English-Japanese translation company for several years. The third participant and training team leader, Bill, was a Chinese-American man in his fifties who spoke English as a first language and Mandarin Chinese as a second language. Bill and Hiroshi had been developing and delivering training seminars for Japanese audiences together for about five years, and Keiko had been a part of the team for four years.

Data Gathering and Analysis

Using the team's three-month training cycle as the boundary of the case, I observed the development of a sales training seminar over a period of two-and-a-half months, from the planning phase in Honolulu to the delivery of the training in Japan (four full days). My primary means of data gathering were observing planning meetings, interviewing participants, collecting documents including PowerPoint presentation slides, and observing training seminars and social events. Planning meetings took place primarily at the beginning of data gathering; training seminars and related events took place towards the end. Throughout the process, I conducted a total of ten formal interviews, five of them in a group format with the three training team members. My main purpose in these interviews was to check what I thought I was observing in the planning meetings and learn more about it.

Data analysis was an iterative process that occurred throughout the data-gathering phase of research beyond. Analysis of interview transcripts, observations of planning meetings and training presentations, and analysis of relevant documents were performed using open and axial coding (Flick, 2002). Open coding applied to lines of text, sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts. All of these levels were important given the wide range of data types and the varying degrees of importance in the data gathered. Codes were then abstracted into categories, followed by axial coding, which refined the categories. Feedback on coding was sought from other qualitative researchers to aid in researcher triangulation. Themes and concepts emerging from qualitative data analysis were evaluated and given to research participants for feedback (Flick, 2002; Yin, 1994), resulting in some slight modifications to findings. The following sections discuss findings related to the social and physical spaces of the organizational training.


Findings confirmed and elaborated on the team's integration of social and physical context with localization. The team members defined the boundaries of the training—and the corresponding boundaries of localization—more broadly than just PowerPoint slides accompanied by oral communication. To them, a truly radical localization for the Japanese audience maximized attention to the physical and social spaces surrounding the training while also carefully shaping the text and form of the training seminar itself (Melton, 2008; 2009). This approach fit well with the high-context business culture of Japan (Hall, 1976; Victor, 1992; Yamada, 2002). Findings related to the use and management of physical and social spaces are described in the following sections: high-context communication and space; relationships and trust; communication in social contexts; and the rhetoric of space.

High-Context Communication and Space

The team members recognized that much of the communication between training team and audience took place through channels outside the formal training. In a related vein, they were aware of different goals for communication: The team members emphasized the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships as integral and a priori to the successful exchange of information, in this case the training presentation.

To appreciate the communicative aim of relationship building in Japanese business, it is necessary to understand the organizational and cultural context in which these relationships are built and nurtured:

The superficial structure of a Japanese company may seem no different from an American one. The difference is in the effect of the structure on internal relationships: Japanese employees really act as if they are family members who count on each other and the organization to take part in or organize various aspects of their personal lives. This is in part why Japanese business relationships extend far beyond the regular workday—late-night drinking and rounds of golf are seen as part of work. It also helps explain why Japanese companies don't have job descriptions. Just as your role in the family is implicit and unwritten, so too is your role at work: Business is family. (Yamada, 2002, pp. 54–55)

In contrast to the information product—the document or presentation—being the place where the professional communicator contributes value (Faber & Johnson-Eilola, 2002), value was created in the relationships that were formed, built, and maintained.

Relationships and Trust

A recurring theme in this study was the importance of personal relationships to the team's communication, both within the training team and between the training team and their associates in Japan. To understand this idea, one needs to be aware of the different ways in which relationships tend to be conceptualized in the United States and Japan. Yamada (2002) explains that while independence is assumed to be a healthy basis for both personal and business relationships in the United States, interdependence is the ideal for relationships in Japan. To explain this interdependence, she draws upon the Japanese concept of amae:

Defined originally by [psychiatrist] Doi [Takeo] as the reciprocal feeling of nurturing concern for and dependence on another, in practice, there is one interdependent who indulges himself in the amae (amaeru), and another interdependent who obliges (amayakasu). In this idealized mutual interdependence of “sweetening” and “being sweetened,” both interdependents benefit, and like a mother and a child, form an affectionate bond . . . but amae (sweetness) is not only restricted to the relationship between a mother and a child. It is pervasive in a variety of relationships in Japan, extending to any combination of the sexes, and beyond what Americans might consider “personal” ones. Just as amae occurs between siblings at home, so it does too among men in the workplace. What's more, a person who knows how to look after others is commended as a mendoomi ga ii hito (a person who knows how to look after others well), a quality highly sought after in managers, and a person who knows how to amaeru (count on someone) is usually well thought of and well cared for. In both directions, amae (sweetness) is considered desirable in the right amount. (pp. 9–10)

Because this is how relationships tend to be approached in Japan, the question for this study was how were such amae-based, interdependent relationships built by the team members? As shown in previous articles, relationships were built between the team members in part through the translation process and between the team and the audience members through the formal presentation of the training seminar (Melton, 2008; 2009). To an even greater degree, as will be shown below, relationships were built outside of the formal training presentation.

The team members understood another cultural difference affecting the establishment of relationships: the different concept of leadership that shaped the team's efforts in Japan. Hiroshi drew on a historical contrast between the United States and Japan to explain the difference:

From ancient times, there were very few people that had a leadership role . . . I guess you could consider lordship as leader[ship], but in America a leader is somebody who shows leadership, [who] becomes one, not necessarily the prince being born into the king's family . . . In Japan, he was absolute . . . and so the commoner[s] didn't have a leader within the commoner society. What they had were people who would mediate between people, and a mediator was considered a leader.

The awareness that Hiroshi demonstrates here is in line with scholarly histories of Japan, including Gordon (2003) and McClain (2002). Put in terms given by Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars (2000), Hiroshi is describing the difference between achieved and ascribed status and between inner-directed and outer-directed leadership.

As additional evidence for his point, Hiroshi pointed out that there is no Japanese word for leader, noting that the only word that can be directly translated as “leader” was imported from outside of Japan. He described the typical practice of Japanese managers to ask for input and build consensus for a decision with colleagues before a formal meeting takes place. He noted that this process allows the meeting to focus on logistics and implementation because the course of action has already been agreed upon. Hiroshi's description matches the findings of Yamada's (2002) study of Japanese business meetings, in which the actual meetings themselves were very formal, but informal communication played a key role in preparing the meeting beforehand. In Yamada's study, relationships were marked by hierarchy and an embrace of unequal distribution of power, also called power distance (Hofstede, 2004), but they were also tempered by amae and the role of leader as mediator. Yamada (2002) explains,

[An] example of familiar interdependence is the Japanese manager's role in creating an environment in which employees perceive themselves as working together for a common goal. In section meetings, the manager draws the focus away from internally competitive and individualized aspects of the job, and refocuses the group on shared ventures, such as program planning, scheduling, and comments on proposals in circulation. (p. 56)

This culturally defined, nurturing, mediating role was important in the team's training efforts as well. For this reason, localization could not take place only in the formal training presentation; mediation and nurturing between training team and local associates were better performed in informal contexts. This process took place before and after the formal training presentation, in social spaces, which will be discussed in the following sections.

Communication in Social Contexts

Relationships and amae were built in large part by communication in social contexts, such as planning lunches and post-training recognition banquets, where the role of the mediator was evident. All of the team's training meetings in Japan included a dinner or banquet afterwards, which the team members said was standard practice for the team there but not in the United States. Bill said, “You don't pull into town, give a [training presentation], and just leave. We do that in the U.S. all the time. I mean, after the meeting's over [in the U.S.], if you wanted to go to dinner, you might go with somebody, but here [in Japan], it's a scheduled event.” He explained,

A lot of the relationships that are built, the decisions that are made, are done not in the training sessions, but informally . . . We go over issues, possibilities—you ought to do this and this.

The team members said social functions were actually more important than the training seminar itself because in an informal setting, audience members could ask questions or raise concerns that they would be reluctant to mention in the meetings (a tendency also noted by Yamada, 2002).

The team members recognized that the tendency of Japanese audience members to ask questions only in an informal setting stemmed either from the concern that they might lose face by asking an unintelligent question in front of everyone or, even worse, that they might make the presenter lose face by asking a question he or she couldn't answer. Hiroshi portrayed how the same conversation might play out in a social context:

If there is some kind of misunderstanding that turns out to be a good question, but somebody doesn't have the answer, you wouldn't be embarrassing them in front of everybody . . . just within that [conversation]. And, some people might [say], “You're too drunk—you're asking the wrong question,” and people just laugh it off and . . . save everyone's face.

Keiko confirmed that she had received good feedback about the after-event dinners because people “can relax and talk honestly [about] many things.”

These statements align with Yamada (2002), who says that in Japanese business much of the important communication does not take place in formal meetings. Rather, conversations take place in social settings and through uchiawase, where “a boss calls upon subordinates to chat about a variety of informal topics” (p. 56). Yamada (2002) explains,

The “sound-outs”on views and positions that take place in these short and frequent uchiawase meetings provide a major resource for the Japanese process of consensus decision building called nemawashi (literally, root binding). Together with other conversations that occur among workmates at every level throughout the work day, and in bars, restaurants, golf courses and other venues of entertainment, managers use uchiawase to sound out the feasibility of proposals that are currently circulating through the company. (pp. 56–57)

The same process occurred with the training: Because much of the real planning, teaching, and gathering of feedback occurred in such places as restaurants and bars, it was vital for the training team members to view them as integral to the training and to actively participate. Thus, a crucial part of the team's localization of the training was structuring events to allow the conceptual walls between formal training and informal conversation to become porous.

But it was not simply the act of scheduling social events that was important; the team members had to exercise the ability to fill in any gaps. Hiroshi explained,

It won't help just going to eat. You need to kind of try to understand how he's feeling, but he might not tell you if he liked the meeting or not. He might have a smile and say, “That was good,” but maybe he had reservations. And in some cases, you have to say, “Maybe I came on too strong at that point.” And if that's [what] he was thinking, he would say, “Oh, you understand how I feel” . . . Then the truth will come out, so you need to be able to read the guy basically.

Here, Hiroshi explains how such social contexts facilitate information exchange, not through the reading of charts, graphs, survey, or other data, but through the reading of people. In a similar vein of being able to “read” someone, Keiko described the importance of relationships in U.S.-Japanese business communication this way: “The most important thing is to know the heart of [the] Japanese. It's very difficult.” The social contexts provided an opportunity for the organizational trainers to, in a sense, learn about the audience's questions and comments and respond accordingly.

Keiko's articulation of this kind of knowing reflects a recognition of the contrast between specific and diffuse communication styles as portrayed by Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars (2000):

Specific communication styles tend to be forthright, blunt, and confrontational. You “tell it like it is,” “call a spade a spade,” and hope that you will not cause offense. Diffuse communication styles are indirect—drop hints, and let the other interpret your full meaning. You “tread gently” and hope the implications of what you have indicated have been fully grasped. (p. 155)

Incidentally, Hiroshi noted that this kind of implicit communication becomes more difficult if done after a few drinks (a similar point is made about Chinese business contexts by Schapiro, 2009).

In any case, understanding the interplay between the formal business training context and the social context may be difficult for cultural outsiders who are not used to seeing social events as part of technical and professional communication. The purpose of this communication is not primarily to impart information, Hiroshi argued, but rather to establish a relationship: “The Japanese go out drinking a lot because they want to find out who you are . . . and they are most worried about who they're going to be associated with because society evaluates you in terms of who your friends are, your associates.” Thus, professional communicators in international context cannot think only in terms of the product they produce, but must also consider the associations and relationships they are establishing and how these efforts are perceived by their international associates. Such thinking requires a level of cultural awareness that may be impossible without advisors or collaborators who are cultural insiders.

The social settings also allowed for opening up the emotions. Keiko noted that in the formal training setting, people “just listen, and [they] sit like that.” At this point, Keiko folded her hands on her lap and portrayed an attentive, respectful, but unexpressive demeanor. She explained that, by contrast, at a dinner or party after a training presentation “people [can] talk and ask any question, and then shake hands, and then hug. That's very important.” All three participants noted that the dissipation of formality at social events allowed an opening up of the emotions. Informal situations provided a forum where the presenters and audience could connect with one another, in part because a more casual kind of communication marked by diffuseness rather than specificity was allowed (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 2000).

Informal communication was particularly interesting in the case of Bill because, as a non-Japanese-speaking outsider, he wasn't able to fully participate in the conversation. However, as a clue to the extent of the diffuse nature of this communication context, Bill's mere presence as the senior member of the training team was very important in building relationships. The high-context act of a higher status individual being personally present was so important that in some cases it didn't really matter if Bill could understand the actual information that was communicated. Bill explained,

We'll go [to Japan] and there will be meetings [where] I don't know what's going on. I'll sit there for five hours . . . and when it's important that I know something or they want some feedback, then they'll stop and they'll translate: “This is what we talked about. Now, what do you think? Do you have any ideas?” . . . But my presence is very important . . . because what I'm saying is, “I value you very much” . . . even if I don't know what the heck is going on.

This situation is not unlike the common practice of inemuri—literally “to be asleep while present”—as described by Steger (2003). The acceptance of this practice depends on the involvement required of the individual and the power dynamics of the situation. Subordinates are often expected to take care of the details, but the actual presence of the executive is required, even if he is not actively involved (Steger, 2003).

Bill explained why personal presence was so important for the team in Japan, while it was not strongly emphasized in the United States: “Yes, we've had training and, yes, people learn a certain amount, but they need to see you and they need to feel . . . your presence because this is a person-to-person culture.” As an example, he noted that the country manager of the company had flown several hours to personally apologize when an important person was mistakenly passed over for an award. He contrasted this act with what would likely have happened in the United States in the same situation: a sincere phone call from the country manager, who would have apologized and offered to make it up at a later time. This instance is similar to David Victor's (1992) discussion of the importance of face-to-face communication in Japan, especially when that communication comes from a person with status in the organization. He notes an incident in which a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane crashed due to negligence on the part of the company. “Yet only one passenger sued the airline—not because the passengers would lose such a case under the Japanese system but, rather, because the president of JAL apologized in person to every family with a relative killed or injured in the crash” (p. 126).

For the team members, informal, contextual communication took place not only after the training but throughout the entire trip to Japan, including pre-training lunches with key colleagues. When I asked if there really was a contrast between the United States and Japan with respect to this practice, Bill said that although these kinds of business lunches are common in the United States, it would be acceptable for the team to omit a lunch meeting there but not in Japan. He explained that in Japan the implication would be that the colleagues were not worth the time and that their input was not important. Bill noted that pre-training meetings helped the team “adjust and adapt” the training to various audiences. The importance of these pre-meeting conversations has been noted by other Japan scholars and observers (Lost in Japan, 2006; Yamada, 2002).

The awards banquet was even more important. Bill noted that “we actually had more people that came to the recognition dinner than came to the training because that is so important.” This is a significant point: If the importance of the recognition dinner can be measured against the training presentation by the number of people who attended, then the recognition dinner was the more important of the two. And, in fact, the participants confirmed that the dinner was more important. On several occasions—before and after the recognition dinner had taken place—the participants informed me that it was the most important part of the training. As part of my postanalysis check with the participants, I wrote that social events such as the awards banquet were “as important” as the formal training, but all three participants corrected me in their feedback and said they were more important.

The training process provided not just an opportunity for audience members to increase their knowledge and skills but also, through social events, to be recognized for their accomplishments. This recognition, according to the team members, was the highlight of the training for many people. Awards, based on sales accomplishments, were given in the form of Hawaiian leis, which had no real monetary value but rather a symbolic value, similar to other context-based signs of status . Although it was not a complicated matter to buy leis to recognize people, this detail was first talked about in a planning meeting six weeks in advance of the recognition dinner and before much of the training content had been decided. The team members not only realized that the recognition was important to the success of the training but also planned out how to act upon this belief well in advance.

If Japanese culture tends to be ascription- rather than achievement-oriented (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2000), why were the awards banquets so important? Going back to Japanese culture's tendency toward collectivism (Hofstede, 2004), particularism (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2000), and ascribed status (Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 2000), it was important for the audience members to receive their award in the presence of their peers in a particular context where emotion could be expressed freely, which ascribed a meaning and status to the award that would otherwise be missing. Through this process, not only were individuals rewarded for performance, but relationships between colleagues were strengthened. It is interesting to note that recognition was not done during the formal training presentation, although it could have been, but at a social event afterwards.

In pre- and post-training events, the content of the training was cemented by the social bonds that were developed in the social contexts surrounding it. The audience members did learn during the training, but this learning was enhanced and put into context through relationships built largely through face-to-face social events. These events were a forum for many activities: asking questions, adjusting training content and approaches, giving and receiving informal, face-saving feedback, expressing emotions to colleagues, being recognized for hard work and accomplishments, and feeling the personal presence of superiors even when language barriers prevented extensive conversation. In this way, the localization of the training was sublimated from the paper and pixels of formal training contexts into the social spaces surrounding them.

The Rhetoric of Space

Given the importance of relationship building that occurred in social spaces, a final, key area of practice for the team was navigating the rhetorics of space—what Hall (1966), calls proxemics, or the “use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture” (p. 1). Hall notes cultural differences in several areas: the typical physical distance between individuals engaged in conversation, the typical social spaces in which interlocutors feel comfortable communicating, and the typical boundaries of public versus private space. Individuals are largely unaware of these differences in their own contexts because their own cultural practices have become naturalized. Yet, global, professional communicators need to be aware of these differences because how space is used—whether intentionally or unintentionally—can send a strong message to an audience.

The participants recognized the importance of proxemics and chose carefully where they and other people were placed both in training and social contexts. Physical proximity reflected not only high power distance (Hofstede, 2004) but also ascribed status (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 2000), as reflected in this statement by Hiroshi: “It's so important in Japan . . . who you sit with, who you take a picture with—that is still [true] today.” Thus, in the formal context of the training seminar, team members followed the practice of seating audience members in the appropriate places in the room according to their status, based on professional title, experience, and age. The intricacies of these processes were difficult for me to understand as a cultural and organizational outsider, but I did observe the process happening and saw a contrast with the more casual seating at the team's training seminars conducted in the United States, where people usually chose their own seats, reflecting assumptions of individualism and equality. While in Japan, I became accustomed to a observing a slight pause before people were seated at a dinner, a training seminar, and even when getting into a car, as silent proxemic calculations based on relative social status were performed. Thus, at training-related lunches and dinners, there was literally a proper place for everyone at the table (Yamada, 2002).

Nonverbal cues, defined according to a culturally defined hierarchy, maintained the cohesion of the group and helped everyone feel there was a proper place for them, both at the table and in the organization. For example, the seating arrangements at one post-training dinner I attended were themselves a message about the status of relationships between group members, in addition to physically determining what communication could take place between which people. Hiroshi understood this, as demonstrated by a hand-drawn sketch he made for me to explain the connection between physical space and professional relationships. The dinner was hosted in a traditional Japanese restaurant, and, as shown in Figure 1, guests were seated at one of two tables, with the more senior people, including the training team, being seated on one side of the room. Shoji doors had been removed to make the two spaces one.

These proxemic arrangements were not static, but rather required constant adjustment. Hiroshi explained that the seating at this event was formal but would continue to move toward more informality in the future as the training team members and audience members became familiar with one another. “We're going into another phase again . . . in terms of relationships, so probably next time, we'll be having Bill and ourselves sitting more in a central location, so people can gather around . . . so it's taking these steps.” Thus, the closeness of relationships was reflected literally in the closeness of seating. As relationships became more intimate, hierarchical seating arrangements would relax and give way to more open conversation.

The tying of relationships to proxemics is also cited by Yamada (2002) in her study of Japanese business communication patterns, in which she discusses how office layouts reflect relational status (p. 56). Hiroshi, too, explained the importance of physical proximity, as experienced by the training team in Japan, by referring to architecture. He noted that although some buildings in Japan such as the Sony building have a more western style, many building designs respond to the need for physical proximity as a show of status and power. He explained that traditionally, the highest status individual sits near the elevator door and “his people start fanning out, so people around the edges of the building are usually the lowest of the chain.” He joked, “If you get to a window, that means, ‘well, we don't have any work for you, so why don't you pass the time.’” Keiko added that this physical placement sends such a strong message that it causes most people to quit because they are ashamed. Bill pointed out that this arrangement is the exact opposite of the United States, where the senior positions are in the corner offices with windows. Yamada (2002) notes that in the United States, prestige is often linked to having independent control over one's own space, while in Japan, prestige is shown through one's physical closeness and connection to others, reflecting the value of interdependence. Likewise, the handling of space during pre- and post-training social events was an architectural enactment of Hofstede's (2004) power distance, a cultural measure that is much higher in Japan and other East Asian countries than it is in the United States.

Figure 1: Training team members were proficient in the management of physical space, which reflected hierarchy and social intimacy, to facilitate group communication.


The findings of this case study show that the team members approached communication in the organizational training context holistically, and team members acted accordingly within both formal and informal contexts. The team knew the very fact that they actively participated in a social event after the training session sent an unspoken message that they were personally committed to a relationship with the audience members. Formal and social spheres of the training were part of an integrated whole, and the team worked to operate successfully within this combined context.

In addition to facilitating formal training events—in which team members invented content, delivered training, and collected feedback (Melton, 2009)—the team members managed social and physical context (see Figure 2). In addition to recognizing the culturally defined spaces for communication that existed outside of the written and spoken text, the training team chose to communicate through these spaces. Much of this communication occurred through proxemics (Hall, 1966). The outsider, Bill, who was negotiating the nuances of proxemics, was able to draw on the expertise of the cultural insiders Hiroshi and Keiko.

Figure 2: Key localization practices included managing the context surrounding the training seminar

Beyond telling us something about the localization practices and assumptions of organizational training in Japan, the case study also reminds us of what we do not know. Even as we begin to understand the culturally based rules of professional communication and apply them to the localization of organizational training, we must recognize that in different cultural contexts we may be playing different games entirely, based on different goals and assumptions (Yamada, 2002).


This case study expands our understanding about the spaces of organizational training in Japan, but some limitations of the study must be recognized. For organizational and possibly for legal reasons, the organization did not give me permission to interview or survey audience members to get a more comprehensive picture of the training. I did observe the training and the audience members' response to it, a process that was bolstered by data triangulation over a period of several months, along with poststudy member checks (Flick, 2002; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Yin, 1994). Yet, even with the robustness provided by these research procedures, there is always the possibility that the training was less effective than I (and the team members) thought it was. This limitation is real but peripheral, given that the primary purpose of the research was to explore the use of space in the localization of organizational training across cultures. The limitation is acceptable, in light of the lack of previous research on the topic and the difficulty of gaining access to organizations for such research. Data were gathered in all available ways in this study, adding to our knowledge about this important topic; future research can continue to test and build upon these findings.


Unlike the study participants, professional communicators in many organizational training contexts will not inhabit the same physical spaces as their audiences. They may interact primarily or even exclusively through e-mail, videoconferencing, or other virtual media. In these situations, professional communicators must find a way to fill the social and rhetorical void left by the absence of physical proximity and face-to-face communication in social settings, which, as this study has shown, serve an important function. Therefore, a vital practice in global professional communication contexts like the one observed in the study is finding new strategies to communicate when customary avenues, such as post-training social events, are closed (Auer-Rizzi and Berry, 2000). Keiko and Hiroshi engaged in such a practice, as described in a previous article, when they encouraged their long-distance Japanese associates to communicate concerns through e-mail rather than saving these concerns for face-to-face conversations (Melton, 2009). Yet, it is probably also true that nothing can ever fully replace face-to-face communication (Bloch & Whiteley, 2009, pp. 36–37). Thus, a final key element of localization practice for global professional communicators is recognizing the limited reach of certain communication media in specific cultural and social contexts.

This study's findings can be valuable on two levels. On the first level, they can inform professional communication practitioners and programs interested in the localization-related practices used in U.S.-Japan international training contexts. On a second and perhaps more important level, these conclusions are germane to professional communication theory about localization, particularly as it pertains to organizational training (Flick, 2002; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Yin, 1994). Six implications of this study, which can be read on both practical and theoretical levels for the development of localization practice, are described below.

First, the study shows that interaction within social spaces can be a vital counterpart to formal organizational training and a key site for professional communication. Recognizing such spaces, incorporating them into one's communication framework, and learning how to act interpersonally within them are all important abilities within global organizational training contexts. In a larger sense, these findings identify an important area of localization practice for professional communicators—recognizing and managing the social and physical contexts surrounding formal varieties of professional communication. This ability has gone largely unnoticed in the professional communication literature.

Second, the study suggests practical limitations in the absence of face-to-face interaction in global professional contexts such as Japan. If social spaces such as the bar or restaurant are unique sites where important professional communication occurs, exclusive reliance on distance-bridging technologies such as instant messaging or videoconferencing to conduct organizational training may fall short. Effective global professional communication depends not just on a mastery of technology but also on a recognition of its limits.

Third, the findings show the need for professional communicators to understand practices related to rhetorics of space or proxemics (Hall, 1966) in both professional and social settings. Particularly in high-context cultures such as Japan, how individuals interact in physical relation to each other can communicate more strongly than what is written or spoken. The interdisciplinary study of proxemics may open up new fields of study for professional communicators and others.

Fourth, the study confirms the acute need for professional communicators to be able to collaborate with cultural and linguistic insiders. Many of the adaptations described in the case study were so nuanced as to be nearly impossible for a cultural outsider to decipher on his or her own. Effective collaboration also requires the ability to recognize different cultural expectations about collaboration itself. In this study, the participants often viewed their collaboration in the Japanese mindset of interdependence rather than solely according to the American idea of a team working to accomplish an objective (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 2000; Hofstede, 2004). They saw collaboration as polychronic (Hall, 1976), hierarchically interdependent (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 2000, Hofstede, 2004), and face- or relationship-oriented (Cocroft & Ting-Toomey, 1994; Spencer-Oatey, 2000) rather than primarily monochronic (Hall, 1976), egalitarian (Hofstede, 2004), and goal-oriented (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 2000). The ability to change one's mode of collaboration is important for global professional communicators when managing the use of space across cultures as well as when making other kinds of adaptation.

Fifth, the study suggests the need for the continued development of theory to address the use of space in professional communication across cultures. New theory is important because assumptions about practices such as localization frame the ways international professional communicators can recognize and work to develop needed competencies. This theory must be responsive to the cultural complexity of managing the physical and social spaces of organizational training.

Finally, developing the awareness of and ability to manage the use of space across cultures depends upon a continued reexamination of fundamental principles. As Weiss (1997) argues, revising the field's traditional conception of localization requires scholars, practitioners, and programs to see cultural realities that remain “hidden by our very definition of the professional communicator and the principles of professional communication” (p. 336). Such an effort will extend, redefine, reenvision, and remake the practices of professional communication, enabling professional communicators to choose from a range of strategies in response to the demands of cultural and organizational context.


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About the Author

James Melton is an assistant professor of business communication at Central Michigan University. He taught intercultural professional communication as a visiting faculty member in Vienna, Austria, in 2010. His research has focused on the areas of translation, localization, and second language use in professional communication. He was the recipient of the 2009 Rudolph J. Joenk, Jr. Award for Best Paper in IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication for the article “Lost in Translation: Professional Communication Competencies in Global Training Contexts.” Social media use across cultures and student learning in study abroad programs are his current research interests. Contact: meltonjim@gmail.com or (989) 774-3510.

Manuscript received 27 May 2010; revised 12 November 2010; accepted 20 December 2010.