Local Style For Lo–lo–s
Should lessons on Hawaii’s complicated cultural landscape be an elective course or a core requirement?
More than 30 years ago, when he was "young and stupid," Dr. Richard Brislin jotted down a quick note to his East-West Center department secretary, with whom he was only briefly acquainted: "Type the attached and have it back in my mailbox by the end of the week." It was a perfectly reasonable and straightforward request (for most places in the nation), but Friday came and went with no typed memo delivered to his box. Monday passed, still no memo.
"That was very Mainland of me," says Brislin, who is now a professor of management at the University of Hawaii's College of Business Administration. "What I should have done was acquaint myself with her, talk story and then casually ask her to type my memo. Local style is about working together. I probably would have gotten the document back that same day."
Brislin, a psychologist by training, teaches classes in leadership and organizational behavior at the university and his lessons are peppered with such humorous and helpful anecdotes, examples of the intricate and intimate social dance that Islanders perform together every day on and off the job. According to Brislin, a good working knowledge of this unwritten set of rules of behavior, informally known as "local style," is essential for community leaders, businesspeople, or anyone who has made Hawaii their home.
Local style has it roots in the Hawaiian culture and evolved in the Islands' multicultural hothouse, heavily influenced by Asian customs and practices, especially the dominant Japanese culture. (See sidebar on page 26) This understated way of social interaction is a complex mix of culture, race and history and is characterized by soft, humble, indirect communication and a respect for others' accomplishments (especially high school exploits). It is based on long-term loyalties and relationships, most of them familial. Local style is collaborative, putting more value on the "we" and not the "I."
According to Brislin, contrary to popular opinion, local style is also very verbal and engaging, maybe not in the classroom or boardroom, but certainly in long talk-story sessions in the lunch room, at the beach or in an aunt's garage over a couple of beers and a plate of poke and boiled peanuts. However, local style isn't all talk. Actions always speak louder than words.
"Local people are up to their necks with Mainlanders telling them how they should be living their lives," says Brislin, who was born and raised in New England. "I feel sorry for these guys, who come to Hawaii with their newly minted MBAs from Harvard or Yale. Many of them think they're superior and discount the accomplishments of the local guy, who went to McKinley High School and UH before getting his MBA at Hawaii Pacific University. Going to Harvard isn't better; it's just different. People with that superior attitude don't last very long in Hawaii."
Brislin's former boss, ex-University of Hawaii president Evan Dobelle, didn't last very long. In August, after just three years on the job, Dobelle resigned, amid charges of financial impropriety, cronyism, a failure to communicate and a lack of accountability to board members.
There were also claims that the brash, arrogant Dobelle had quickly alienated important and valuable allies by disrespecting their credentials and accomplishments, taking credit where he shouldn't have and shirking responsibility when he should have taken the heat. Obviously, none of these are fireable offenses. However, Dobelle's inability to cultivate the consistent support of local lawmakers, business and community leaders and the public at large, most certainly hobbled the effectiveness of his presidency. Dobelle wasn't local style, some said.
Dobelle has struck back at his critics, playing the local card himself. In a July 23, 2004, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he blamed his problems on a micromanaging Board of Regents and said members were resistant to change. "It's time for them to come off the plantation," he said, referring to board members. "… It was all about trying to spin the story to try to be harmful to a president who was being very successful, and people aren't used to success in Hawaii."
The Capt. Cook Syndrome
The Islands have a long history of Mainland newcomers, who are lionized as people of vision and destiny, then publicly mauled for their inability to fit in. The list is extensive and largely unnamed, from energetic middle managers and company presidents to newly graduated teachers and high-ranking state administrators. It goes all the way back to Hawaii's first malihini, Capt. James Cook, whose divine aura wore off shortly after he wouldn't let the locals borrow a rowboat.
Dobelle's charges of an insular community unable and unwilling to change exposed a perpetually raw nerve in Hawaii: Are the Islands a land of aloha, a place open to new people and newer ideas, or is it a hopeless backwater saddled by an idealized and unrealistic nostalgia for yesteryear? Should visionary leaders spend valuable time learning the lay of the Island landscape when their job is to blaze new trails in the first place? Is the prevailing culture preventing the state from making significant and necessary change?
The short answer is yes and no.
"We definitely send mixed messages to newcomers," says Keith Kashiwada, associate professor of language arts at Kapiolani Community College. "On the one hand, we're attracted to them because they boldly stand out. However, we also want newcomers to adhere to a set of unwritten rules that we aren't going to tell them about. They're going to have to figure it out for themselves."
According to Kashiwada, local style is a complicated dichotomy, a reverse inferiority complex in which Islanders respect and are attracted to qualities that they don't possess, but, at the same time, are protective of the status quo when those characteristics and ideas don't pan out. "It's kind of hypocritical," says Kawashida. "We love the new thing, the big idea, but once it becomes familiar and therefore local, it's inferior. This is very difficult terrain for the Mainland transplant to understand. It's even difficult for locals to master sometimes."
The Art of the Relationship
Jeffrey Watanabe is Hawaii's dealmaker. The managing partner of the powerful law firm of Watanabe Ing Kawashima & Komeiji is the state's busiest and most effective liaison between the state's leading businesses seeking outside capital and Mainland companies looking for opportunities in Hawaii. Watanabe helped Norwegian Cruise Lines navigate the Island chain's political and financial waters. He also assisted newspaperman David Black during his purchase of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, in which Watanabe would eventually invest himself.
"Honolulu looks like a big city, but because of our large transient population, it's actually a fairly small town, with a power structure that is relatively small and unchanging," says Watanabe. "Therefore, you tend to deal with the same people all the time, so you better not make messes. I'm sure in a big city like New York or Chicago you can do that and move on. But not in Hawaii."
As a result, Watanabe says, local-style business in Hawaii is based more on long-term relationships than on shortsighted deals. Hawaii's business community, 2,500 miles away from the next major city, is interdependent, and leaders here share an underlying responsibility to take care of the place. According to Watanabe, it's a mindset that goes back at least to Hawaii's Big Five conglomerates, but probably predates even those businesses.
Watanabe tells prospective investors from the Mainland and young local businessmen starting their careers that their first steps into Hawaii's business world should be carefully chosen. In the Islands, first impressions are lasting ones. "We often get contacted by people who want to sell something in Hawaii, and they don't want to waste any time here. They just want to make the deal and move on," says Watanabe. "I tell them, 'If this is going to be just another market for you, if you're going to pick up and leave in a heartbeat, you're going to embarrass us and embarrass yourself. '
"Is that a backward way of doing business? If you're from New York or Los Angeles, or most big cities on the Mainland, the answer is yes," continues Watanabe. "Are we losing out on important opportunities? Probably. Are these opportunities that are good for the state in the long run? Probably not."
Not a Local Call
Not too long ago, Jonathan Okamura, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii, visited an okazu-ya not far from campus. When it came time to pay for his lunch at the Japanese delicatessen, he realized that he didn't have enough money. "Don't worry, next time," said the owner.
"That's an example of local style," says Okamura. "Dobelle's performance as president and his subsequent firing didn't have anything to do with localisms."
Okamura has a hard time believing that Dobelle's (or any executive of a large company, for that matter) inability to adhere to some mysterious code of behavior somehow contributed to his downfall. He points out that some of Hawaii's most effective and popular leaders were brash, arrogant and outspoken: union leader Jack Hall, former Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi. More recently, former governor Ben Cayetano and current U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie have been known to ruffle a few feathers.
Yes, local people value humility and generosity in their neighbors and co-workers, but when it comes to their leaders, they appreciate results most of all.
"Dobelle didn't lose his job because he was arrogant. He lost his job because he couldn't make good on his many promises," says Okamura. "It's ridiculous that people think that the university is supposed to be this vast repository of local values. And all this business about not being able to come off the plantation is nonsense. You have a guy with a $500,000 salary, who lives in the manager's house on the hill making these charges?"
According to Okamura, the imposition of local-style values on a clearly administrative and political matter is an instance of misplaced nostalgia for an idealized way of life and way of doing business. Sure, Islanders have a particular way of dealing with each other face-to-face (as do most localities). However, that complicated code stops somewhere at the middle-manager level in business. CEOs answer to their board members and stockholders, not to historians or cultural experts.
"I'm not saying that there isn't a local style of doing business. There is. Just visit any number of small businesses in town," says Okamura. "But Hawaii is a changed place. Today, we have tourism, big-box retailing and multinational corporations. Those things have changed Hawaii forever and that makes people nervous. They want to believe that the Islands still operate like they did before World War II, during simpler times."
Businessman Wesley Park tends to agree. Islanders clearly share a particular culture, which is personal and in some instances punitive. (Just try honking your car horn at someone on the freeway.) However, people tend to confuse how locals choose to socialize with how they do business. Park believes that at their very core, local values are universal values: honesty, kindness and hard work.
"Newcomers to the Islands often have difficulties fitting in. This is because people in Hawaii have strong associations with family, so a lot of their activities involve family and extended family," says Park, who is the retired president of Hawaii Dental Service and dean emeritus of the University of Hawaii's College of Continuing Education. "But when it comes to being a successful leader or businessperson, it all boils down to being effective at work and a good person, not an incompetent jerk."
Acting Local and Global
So the question remains. Will the broadband, high-speed, needed-it-yesterday world leave tradition-bound Hawaii behind? While the rest of the world is getting down to business and sealing deals by lunch, are Islanders still asking each other about their kids and their weekends over coffee?
The College of Business Administration's Brislin doesn't think local students or businesspeople are hindered by their cultural values. In fact, he believes that locals may even have a leg up on their Mainland competition when it comes to international business, as the world increasingly becomes a global village.
"Most of my local students have grown up with Korean, Japanese and Filipino friends. They may even be able to understand a little Chinese. In any case, they have culture and cultural differences programmed into them," says Brislin. "As a rule, most locals are bicultural. That is, they know how to behave in different ways when situational pressures dictate it. For instance, if they're working at somewhere like Bank of Hawaii, and they're expected to be at work at 8 a.m., they show up at 8 a.m. But if they are supposed to go to a picnic at Magic Island at noon, they might show up at 1 p.m."
According to Brislin, local style is changing, becoming more direct and formal as Islanders return to the state after having worked on the Mainland. But local life isn't being altered too much. Because of the Islands' geographic isolation, certain things will always remain the same, no matter how fast the rest of the world is moving. For instance, today, the professor will gladly talk story with the department's secretary or anyone else who wants to share a rumor or anecdote. "That, thankfully, will probably never change," says Brislin.
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