Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures, Joe Lurie, Cultural Detective, 2018, 235 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti
You’re going to love Joe Lurie. It’s important to get that on the record straight away because although this book is not entirely a first-person narrative, much of it is. And if you don’t warm to the person in a first-person narrative, you’re in for a long slog. But Joe is so genuine, so modest—so charming—you’ll be quite content to linger in his company.
Now it’s time for an embarrassing confession. When I was first asked to review this book, I was skeptical. Perception and Deception is basically a series of colorful, amusing, and sometimes poignant anecdotes illustrating all manner of cultural differences, a collection of the kind of stories we have all heard before, most probably early on in our intercultural career. My first reaction, in short, was: This is pretty basic; there’s not much new here.
My second reaction was: How elitist and patronizing. Basic for whom? Nothing new to whom? Maybe not to professional interculturalists, but not everyone is a professional interculturalist, including folks who read this newsletter. There are neophyte or beginning interculturalists, for example, and there are lots of folks who’ve never even heard the words intercultural or cross-cultural but who might be intrigued if someone bothered to introduce them to this world. Which is exactly what Joe Lurie, to his enormous credit, is trying to do with Perception and Deception. Joe is not trying to impress experienced interculturalists; he’s trying to create new ones. Are we all so interculturally evolved that we can no longer remember a time when we first encountered a cultural difference—for many of us of a certain generation that was probably the time a foreign exchange student came to our high school—and were bowled over and utterly fascinated? And wanted to learn more?
Our field needs more books like this, books we can hand to young people who have shown a budding interest in culture and want to read about it, or even to mature adults who’ve just never thought about culture. But these folks don’t want theory or paradigms; they want incidents, examples. They want stories. And Perception and Deception is full of them. Here are three to give you a feel for the book.
Ideas of how respect is perceived across cultures is illustrated in an exchange that took place during an official visit of a U. S. delegation to China in 1978, shortly after US-Chinese diplomatic relations reopened. While touring an important Beijing cemetery, one U. S. delegate noticed oranges placed on many gravesites. Jokingly, he asked the Chinese guide, “When will you ancestors come up to eat the oranges?” The guide paused and then, clearly irritated, answered: “When your ancestors come up to smell the flowers.”
Ayaka was often shaken by her coworkers’ directness. For example when she asked, “Can we review the agenda?” her coworker replied curtly, “No. I don’t have time now.” In the Japanese workplace people aren’t so direct and confrontational, Ayaka explained. In Japan the response might be, “Please let me think about that.” Japanese know that sentence means “No.” This behavior reminded me of the wonderful book, Sixteen Ways to Avoid Saying No. Author Masaaki Imai explains that one way to say “no” in Japanese is to say “yes.” It is not surprising that another of his books is titled Never Take Yes for an Answer.
When marketing across cultures, and even within countries, companies must be sensitive to language…. A British company spent millions of dollars launching its new curry sauce, Bundh, but the negative response among curry-loving Punjabi speakers was surprising; in Punjabi bundh means “ass.” When Microsoft was promoting its search engine Bing in China, it discovered that in Mandarin Chinese bing sounds like “illness” and it can also mean “pancake,” depending on which tone (3rd or 4th) is used. Microsoft changed the name to the more commercially appealing biying—which means “seek and you shall find” (James Hookway, Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012).
To be sure, stories like these, as wonderful as they are, start to lose their punch when they are repeated one after the other, page after page. That’s a challenge in a book like this, but Lurie knows the risk and has addressed the redundancy problem by creating categories; so there are stories about the news of the day, business, technology, diplomacy, language, religion, generational divides, and migration. If the stories start to blur, just put the book down for a while; a book such as Perception and Deception is not meant to be read at one sitting.
I’ve saved the best for last: the cover. It features the back of a man’s completely shaved head with the words Militant? Monk? Punk? Patient? superimposed on it. Brilliant. Actually, that’s the cover of the 2nd edition; if anything, the cover of the first edition is even better. It features the face of a cow looking directly at you with the words: What am I? Divine? Dowry? Dinner? Is there anyone who could resist opening a book with that cover?
To recap: this book is basic. And we should all be grateful because now we have the perfect book to show people when they ask us what we do, when we tell them, and then when they say: “Really? Cultures can’t be all that different.”