by David Tharp

This past year I approached a well-known international organization in Tokyo to offer their member companies a half day seminar dealing with problems about intercultural communication. My program takes up considerations around the emotional life of a company and how individual, group, social, or mono-cultural thinking can cause stress, depression, and ultimately an unhappy work environment for all concerned.

The program manager spent weeks mulling the proposal with others in the organization and came back with the reply – “We don’t think we need such a seminar.” Curious, I asked how they came to that conclusion. “Because our companies don’t have problems with intercultural communication or their corporate emotional life,” was the answer. With decades of experience in Japan, including working in Japanese companies and foreign owned organizations, I know that the reply I received was patently untrue, but sighed and chalked it up to people living in Alice In Wonderland fantasies. Or, the fact that many companies are still in a Victorian/Edo Era time warp that dictates seminars are only supposed to tell company employees how to be efficient and make more money — while ignoring mental and emotional health.

Not long afterwards, I received an independent request from a member company of that organization asking me to do exactly what my rejected seminar offered. The human resources manager who approached me gave me just the opposite story: “We have many communication, social, and cultural problems between our Japanese and non-Japanese staff which are contributing to a growing atmosphere of mistrust and friction,” the person said.

One of the issues that I was also asked to mention prominently in the half-day seminar was harassment in general, and sexual harassment in particular. It was pointed out to me that a better understanding was needed in the company between Japanese/Japanese, and Japanese/non-Japanese employees (especially those with no Japanese language knowledge or exposure to Japanese cultural ideas) about acceptable levels of communication between males and females in the workplace context. Since one of my psychotherapeutic areas of expertise is in sexual attitudes and behavior, I am perhaps more aware than the usual company lecturer-trainer about the impact of misguided or uninformed attitudes towards sexual issues — male-female communication, homophobia, sexual life style orientation — can have on the company environment.

In regard to just the sexual attitudes inherent within a company’s culture among employees and management, I have had to deal therapeutically with many cases of sexual harassment induced-stress, rape, destruction of careers, depression, mental breakdowns, and even attempted suicide. And, sexual attitudes are only one part of the emotional life of an organization – whether it is in Tokyo, London, New York or Moscow. In a mixed cultural context the potential problems have a tendency to be even more complex, so perhaps, gentle reader, you can understand why I might want to reach for the nitroglycerine tablets when someone tells me that in a complicated, multicultural organization there are NO intercultural communication problems, much less zero impact on the emotional life of the people working within it. Let’s just say I have my doubts that this is true, and Freud is probably rolling over in his grave — not for the first or last time.

Which brings us back to — let me check my bearings — yes, this is Tokyo, so perhaps, just perhaps, an organization might need to assess the following priorities in a “emotional life” seminar for the company: what are the emotional behaviors and attitudes of the employees in a company? Does sexual harassment exist? What are you doing about it?

Is anyone in HR looking at psychological issues, and the possible need for organizational therapy? What are the company’s policies regarding mental health and whether this is seen as a serious problem? How to fairly balance Japanese and non-Japanese perspectives in the work context. Complaint procedures — is there an open door policy? Is there an understanding that these issues affect everyone in a work situation?

If these points ring any bells, then perhaps we can prevail on Santa Claus to provide some answers during the holiday season. Ho, ho, ho.

David Tharp is a psychotherapist who gives emotional life seminars for corporations and companies. He has specialist training in intercultural therapy, couple relationship and sexual therapy, dance therapy, and sometimes does impersonations of Santa Claus, aka, Father Christmas, Chris Kringle, or Cool Yule.