Your Guide to Local Style Business

The basic lesson is pretty simple: It's the culture, stupid

December, 2007

Last January, at an afternoon press conference, the UH football team learned that its All-American quarterback would be returning for another season, and the rest of Hawaii met their newest Island son. Colt Brennan, dressed in baggy shorts, white dress shirt, slippers and kukui nut lei, announced that he was going to withdraw his name from the NFL draft, which was just days away.

“I like the person I’m becoming in Hawaii,” said Brennan, wiping away tears as he explained his decision. “I want to give back to a school that gave back to me.” 

Hawaii has had many a love affair with its sports heroes, but this one was getting serious. Brennan’s 5,549 passing yards and NCAA-record 58 touchdowns thrown during the 2006 season had long since won over the Island football faithful, but his words and actions that day sealed what most likely will be a lifelong relationship. If that weren’t enough, subsequent early-season profiles in The New York Times and ESPN The Magazine tenderly chronicled the Irvine, Calif., native’s conversion from bad boy to local boy, his growing ohana in the Islands and his agonizing decision to forego the NFL and the possible millions that it offered. 

“I don’t know him, and I don’t know how much of it is smoke up my ass, but if you are to believe what everyone is saying about him, he is an example of someone who has really embraced the culture,” says Keith Kashiwada, English professor at Kapiolani Community College. “It’s kind of like the guys who come here to surf. There are those who are just interested in the waves, but there are others who want to find out what surfing really means here, and they sit down and watch and listen.”

The Colt Brennan saga isn’t just a sports story, relevant to incoming football recruits or surfing vagabonds. What the quarterback did and how he was received speaks volumes on how Hawaii people live and work together on their small islands. It is germane to just about anyone who calls Hawaii home, but it may be especially instructive to recently relocated business people looking to establish themselves in their new Island community or longtime residents who need to stop and smell the pikake.

The basic lesson is pretty simple: It’s the culture, stupid.

Unlike Brennan, people don’t have to study the Samoan language or have the Hawaiian Island chain dyed into their shaved heads to show their interest and commitment to the community. Accord-ing to Shidler College of Business professor Richard Brislin, it’s more about attitude, effort and a softer, quieter form of communication that calls for more listening and less talk.

“If executives from elite schools like Harvard, MIT, Wharton and Stanford come here thinking that they’re smarter than locals and are here to teach them the Harvard way out here in the sticks, then they aren’t going to do well,” says Brislin. “In my opinion, locals don’t have anything against Harvard and Stanford people. It’s more of a wait-and-see attitude: ‘Are you going to be like the others, who treat us as poor country cousins, or are you going to be reasonable and pitch in and help out?’”

The collaboration and participation part is key for Brislin. The “we” and not “I” is more valued here, and he says phrases such as “Back in _____, we did it this way” are especially grating to many locals, who are used to hearing about their shortcomings. 

However, in Hawaii, unlike most locales, how and how often people interact outside of the office is almost as important as what they do during working hours. Being cognizant of local traditions and customs and getting involved in peoples’ lives goes a long way. According to Brislin, a working knowledge of these unspoken, undocumented everyday-life tidbits, which he calls “tacit expectations,” shows a respect for the lifestyle and a commitment to the place. 
“You can probably go a long time on the Mainland without attending a 1-year-old birthday party or a high school graduation. But if you don’t attend them here, it’s not a good sign,” says Brislin. “Basically, it [participation] is a way for newcomers to say, ‘We appreciate this, we think this works pretty well, and we want to take part in it.’”

Why do locals need this validation of themselves and their lifestyle? Why is a buy-in so important?

It may have something to do with Hawaii being a stunningly beautiful place, where the landscape can and often does overshadow the people and cultures thriving among and within its mountains, valleys and beaches. For decades, Native Hawaiians and other local residents have been defined by popular images largely manufactured and disseminated offshore. When the best Hollywood movie about Hawaii values and culture stars an animated alien, who wouldn’t be sensitive?
But, according to observers, the emphasis on lifestyle and culture probably has less to do with rectifying any inaccurate imaging than with simple geography: How do a lot of people in a small area live together?
Kashiwada believes that the need for participation may be an outgrowth of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and certain Asian cultures, which put great value on social interaction and obligation. In areas with limited resources and space, people get into each others’ lives.

“Some things may sound silly and provincial and maybe they are. But there is a necessity for some of that behavior,” says Kashiwada. “It all comes down to: How are we going to get along with each other? Most local people, whether they know it or not, are looking for someone who is willing to engage.”
Brislin believes that once that fundamental urge to engage and connect is recognized and acknowledged, the interpersonal bridge is already halfway completed. 
“I don’t think this [local culture] is exclusionary, as long as people send the message through their nonverbal behavior of their interest,” says Brislin. “Communicating that you want to get involved and chatting people up on some of the unwritten local ways will go a long, long way. People will appreciate the effort.”

If that doesn’t work, you might consider shaving your head and spray painting your scalp.


SPEAK OUT: Write a Letter to the Editor and send it

You’re at a party thrown by your best friend’s cousin’s cousin, or maybe it’s a potluck at your softball teammate’s brother’s house, or just a run-of-the-mill networking event. In any case, you’re in a situation where you don’t know many people, and they don’t know you.

After some initial introductions and momentary chitchat, the most important question in Island discourse is asked: “What school you went?” If you did attend a Hawaii high school, your answer may briefly make you the life of the party or the butt of an ongoing joke. It all depends on where everyone else matriculated. The next question will almost certainly be: “What year you went grad?” That, more often than not, is followed by: “Then you must know my cousin ….” 

For newcomers, the inquiry may seem backward or even nonsensical – what does my high school, which I attended 10, 20, 30 years ago, have to do with anything? But for locals, the Q & A is not only a convenient conversation starter, it is also an Island-style Google search, that provides a quick socioeconomic snapshot of a perfect stranger. In the cozy landscape that is Hawaii, jam-packed with meaning, your high school diploma isn’t only a part of your resume, it’s a part of your genealogy. 

“If you already have the knowledge of the different schools, you can obtain a lot of personal information by asking that one question,” says Jonathan Okamura, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “First, there’s simple geography, where people live. A school’s location will also indicate class, Kaiser, for instance, as opposed to Waipahu. Then, of course, you have the whole public school/private school thing.”

But, according to Okamura, as efficient as this information gathering may be, the particular details of different schools and their surrounding neighborhoods aren’t nearly as important as the potential of uncovering a possible personal connection between speakers. What school you went? (WSYW) is a leaping off point, a search for commonality and connection. 

“I don’t know if class is all that important to most people, but it is one way to get it,” says Okamura. “We live in a small place, which has relatively little amount of movement, so it [WSYW] is really a polite way to find out about someone and then after that start making connections.”

“I always tell people that in Hawaii instead of six degrees of separation you have two,” says local attorney John Komeji. “Since Hawaii is so small there is a chance that you may know someone. That is what it is all about. Your reputation, who you are and what you do, travels pretty quickly in this town.”

According to local author Darrell Lum, WSYW has roots in the Islands’ plantation culture and beyond. Immigrant laborers, far from their homelands, integrated the host Island culture, which put great value on interpersonal relationships and an affection for the land, with their own. Traditionally, Native Hawaiians identified themselves by geography and genealogy. 

Lum, whose dissertation was entitled, “What School You Went?” says that WSYW is simply a contemporary take on this time-honored introduction, which probably became even more widespread as workers moved off the confines of the plantation and spread throughout the growing city.

“It’s sort of a native way of seeing the world as a giant kinship,” says Lum. “The fundamental impulse of asking the question is wondering: How are we related? Local people connect by wanting to become a member of a family. That’s why we call just about any adult uncle or aunty.”

But what if you weren’t born in the Islands, didn’t go to school here and have no blood relations who call Hawaii home? Does that leave you outside of the ohana? Is the Q & A less about kinship and more about weeding out newcomers? Obviously, it varies from person to person, but, according to Lum and Okamura, the fundamental impulse is a positive one. Once recognized as such, a savvy speaker can volunteer other information that may establish a possible personal tie: colleges, former residences, in-laws’ backgrounds, etc.

Once a connection is established, what then? Nothing really. Maybe a longer conversation, maybe not. In the end, the effort that each party puts in to forming the connection is the most important element in the whole exchange. Once acknowledged, everyone becomes part of one big, loose tribe, which at times can be a little tribal.

“I’m not quite sure why, but when Hawaii people meet, especially on the Mainland somewhere, there is a connection, a sense of trust,” says Komeji. “I don’t know if that is necessarily a good thing. But since Hawaii is such a small place, if you mess up, I can find you.”




Whether you are applying for a job at one of Hawaii’s biggest companies, trying to raise funds or 
just drum up new business, our list of Black Book executive biographies offers numerous ways to strike up a conversation with Hawaii’s most influential business people.

You can now ask BancWest Corp. chairman of the board Walter Dods about his “killer forehand,” or what it was like growing up in Aina Haina in the ’50s. Maybe the next time you run into Hawaiian Airlines’ senior vice president, Hoyt Zia, you can ask him about his favorite movie, or about how much fun his last job was.
Because Hawaii people have an instinctive need to look for and make connections. With that in mind, we offer this humorous look (we hope) at how to read a Black Book biography.

1. Hawaii people share special ties, especially when they are away from the state. But for those from smaller communities throughout the Islands, those bonds are even stronger.

2. Your biggest entry point. There’s a mother lode of personal information here. Maybe he’s related to the Manoa Miyashiros. Or maybe you can ask him if he knows your wife’s crazy cousin Clyde; OK, maybe not. Talk about football; OK, maybe not.

3. How about them Bows! Your second biggest entry point. The Islands have close ties to many schools along the West Coast, but the reach is extending to some surprising places. With a complete stranger it’s easier to kid them about their college than their high school. Graduate schools are certainly fair game. Two words: Appalachian State.

4. Ask him about the company’s slogan: “The bank that says, ‘Let me ask my manager!’” or kid him about its wimpy dog mascot.

5. Oops. If he responded well to your previous jokes, ask him what it feels like to be the smartest guy in the room.

6. Bingo! The Hawaii trifecta. The possibilities are endless here. Start with golf. There are a million things to talk about, especially in Hawaii: clubs, courses, whether Michelle Wie will ever break par again.

7. No way. What a stud.

8. How old? If they’re 12 or under, they play soccer.



Shidler College of Business professor Richard Brislin calls them “tacit expectations,” rules and facts about Island life and loves, which locals know by heart but don’t tell everyone. Here’s our take on the five essential elements of local living.

1. High School Reunion

Having a working knowledge of the histories and reputations of the Islands’ various high schools is invaluable. The information doesn’t have to be spot on accurate. In fact, it may be more fun if it is based on old stereotypes, which it often is. Learn if a school has a “rugged” reputation (Waianae, Waipahu, Farrington, etc.); people like to talk about the bad old days. Of course, get to know the various sports powers: Kahuku, St. Louis, Kamehameha, Waianae (football); Iolani, Kalaheo, Kaimuki (basketball); Punahou (everything else). It’s also helpful to be knowledgeable of some of the rivalries in town. The Iolani/ Punahou rivalry is probably the biggest and most contentious, but there are others.

Bonus Question:
 What trophy did the Punahou and Roosevelt football teams play for from 1939 – ‘69?

Answer: Paintbrush Trophy

Double Bonus: What was the name of the trophy that the St. Louis and McKinley squads vied for during the World War II years?

Answer: The Poi Pounder

2. Go Bows!

From August through December, there’s only one game in town. OK, maybe two. UH Warrior football and Wahine volleyball dominate the sports scene, especially if either is having a good season. Go to a game or two and attend a tailgate (pot luck rules apply).

Bonus Question:
 What was the score of the 1955 game between UH and the University of Nebraska football teams, played in Lincoln?

Answer: UH: 6 Nebraska: 0

Double Bonus Question: What was the score of the game between the two teams the year before in Honolulu? 

Answer: Nebraska: 50 UH: 0

3. Special Occasions and Holidays

Weddings, first-birthday luaus and high school graduations can be elaborate affairs. The first rule is that attendance is almost mandatory and don’t worry if you’re late. The main thing is that you are there. At weddings, it’s acceptable to sneak out when the dancing starts. Try and stay for the clown at the luau. And for graduations, don’t forget to bring a lei, the bigger, the better. It’s probably the only time you can show up with a double carnation lei without someone cracking up.

Bonus Points: If you refer to someone (not a blood relative) as aunty or uncle at one of these gatherings.

Double Bonus Points: If someone (not a blood relative) refers to you as aunty or uncle.

4. Life of the Party

The potluck is a local institution, kind of like church. When either hosting or attending one, think of the two Qs – quantity and quality (in that order). Even though you may be hosting a potluck, you still have to prepare several dishes on your own. Never run out of food, or have just enough. If people aren’t taking leftovers home, you’re in trouble.

When attending a potluck, under no circumstances, unless specifically instructed, bring chips or paper goods. If you are asked to contribute these items, bring an overabundance of them or a small dessert, too.

Bonus Points: If you try the poi, you get three points. If you like it with milk and sugar – four points; straight – five points.

Double Bonus Points: Name three kinds of mangoes.

Answer: Common, Hayden, Pirie

5. Viva Las Vegas!

Hawaii’s ninth island. You don’t have to visit or even like it, just acknowledge it. Knowing a little bit about the activities there, especially downtown Vegas, can go a long way. 

Bonus Question: Who said: “And away we go!”

Answer: Travel agent Didi Ah Yo.

Bonus Points: You stay at the California Hotel and start craving a Spam musubi or a saimin – five points.




Most common local high schools our Black Book executives reported

Punahou – 31
Iolani – 17
Roosevelt – 10
St Louis – 7
Hilo – 7
Castle – 6
Kaimuki – 5
Leilehua – 5
McKinley – 3
Mid-Pacific – 3
Kalani – 3
Waipahu – 3
Aiea – 2
Hawaii Prep. – 2
Kamehameha – 2
Farrington – 2
Moanalua – 2
Hawaii Baptist – 2
Kapaa – 2
Radford – 2
Seabury – 2
Honokaa – 2

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