Sample Activity

The Cultural Detective Series has quickly grown to thirty culture-specific packages. Each of those packages contain instructions on introducing the basic concepts of intercultural communication, three basic intercultural capacities (subjective culture, cultural literacy, cultural bridge), an overview of the culture, core values and their negative perceptions (a Values Lens), and at least six critical incidents involving people from that culture.

Those of you who work with multicultural teams, however, have asked us to make the Values Lenses available as stand-alone pieces. Those of you who coach executives have asked us for the same thing, because you find the Values Lenses invaluable in helping people see how their actions, strategies, and programs might be perceived by people in another culture, and how the coachee might modify his/her plans to enhance success.

In May 2006 we added a stand-alone Values Lens option to our product line. Each Lens includes a Facilitator Guide and a license to use with a maximum of ten participants. As a first step to help familiarize you with using a Values Lens, we developed a business case on the topic of coaching and predeparture orientation.

On a recent flight on American Airlines, their in-flight magazine contained an illustration entitled, "Anatomy of a Japanese Department Store" by Shinichi Shirashi (February 15, 2006 issue). It was accompanied by an article by Larry Olmsted entitled, "One-Stop Shopping in Japan." I thought it looked like a fun way to leverage a Values Lens and challenge myself. What could a department store tell us about Japanese culture? About working more effectively with Japanese colleagues? About living in Japan more enjoyably? How could a visit to a department store teach you how to learn about culture—improve your Cultural Detective skills?

I immediately contacted American Airlines to request permission to use the illustration. If you use the illustration, please maintain full credit to the artist and publisher. Thank you. I trust you will enjoy the activity

The Japanese Department Store Values Lens Activity


  • To develop the ability to more readily learn about another culture, by practicing the skills of observation and critical thinking.
  • To enhance understanding about Japanese culture (and perhaps how it relates to working more effectively with Japanese, or how it can help us learn to live more enjoyably and successfully in Japan).


  1. Review participants' learning or performance improvement needs, and link them to the objectives of the activity.
  2. Introduce the idea that observable behavior provides important clues to what people hold dear—their values, assumptions, and "common sense." Provide a few simple examples to illustrate the concept.
  3. Project or pass out a copy of the department store illustration. Explain that spaces can also teach us a lot about what is important to people. Space provides an important clue to the human psyche. Give participants a few moments to look at the illustration.
  4. Give participants an example of how the observable can teach us about deeper culture. For example, you could say "Both ends of the store are devoted to food—two basement floors, and the top floor and roof. In addition to these, there are coffee shops and restaurants (lower floors), and regional foodstuffs (top floor). Food is obviously important. But "food" is a necessity, not a societal value. What is your best guess about why food would be so important to the Japanese shopper?" Answers may include such values as socializing, relationship building, and family. The wealth of food offerings in a Japanese department store can help us realize that relationships and social time together must be key aspects of building trust and accomplishing what needs to get done with many Japanese people.
  5. Ask participants to read the descriptions of each floor of the store and take note of what appears to them to be important to the people who shop here and the people who run the store. Why would they design the store the way they have? What are their observations, and what might be the underlying values motivating that particular use of space? Participants can work alone first, and then pair up or form small groups.
  6. Once each pair or small group has identified two or three values linked with use of space, explain to them that culture is a pattern of behavior and values shared by a group of people. Every culture has a central tendency (draw a bell curve to illustrate). What this means is that no one person is a "typical" Japanese, but that many Japanese will share certain values or characteristics. Some Japanese will be at one end of the bell curve/central tendency; other Japanese at the other end. Thus, there are huge individual variations, yet most people who have grown up in Japan will be affected by core Japanese cultural values. Explain that any list of values, any cultural group tendencies, therefore do not necessarily apply to each member of the culture, and they often apply in unique ways.
  7. Pass out a Japanese Values Lens. Explain that the magnifying glass is a metaphor—a lens through which we view the people, spaces and events around us. For some Japanese, one or another of the colors in this lens may be very pronounced, a deep color that affects nearly everything they see. On the other hand, a few of the values may for them be very light or even clear—those values do not influence the way in which they look at the world. Right now we are going to use the Lens to look at the department store, to see if you can pick up a few more clues to culture. (Note: the Lens itself, what you will copy for participants, contains only very brief descriptions of the values and their negative perceptions. The Cultural Detective Japan package contains much more comprehensive explanations and examples and is useful facilitator preparation or reference material.) Looking at the department store, what do you see in that space that resonates with the values illustrated in your Lens?
  8. After each pair or group has identified another couple of values linked with use of space, ask each group to report one of their findings to the large group. Keep going around until participants have shared all their unique ideas. You may find that participants link behavior to values in a way that doesn't quite fit the culture you are teaching them. Be prepared to respond to this. For example, US Americans might say there are so many food outlets in the department store because efficiency and convenience are valued. These may be more US American values than they are Japanese, so you could explain how most people look at the world through our only values lenses, explain the frequent gap between intention and perception, and explain the fact that different values can manifest in similar behavior, while similar values can manifest in very different behavior. It makes the process of detecting culture all that more challenging! Maintain a list of value/behavior pairs to help participants feel the material has been summarized.
  9. Finally, facilitate an application discussion. The questions you ask participants will depend on why they need to know about Japanese culture. Questions could include, for example:
    • "Looking at this list of key Japanese values that we have generated, are there some that are exciting to you, that you would look forward to experiencing when you live or work in Japan?
    • Are there values that you are fairly sure will challenge you, that run contrary to who you are and how you like to be? Which ones? How?
    • Sometimes when we journey across cultures, we may experience someone else's value (e.g., "harmony") as exactly the opposite, meaning that their intent causes the opposite effect. Did anything about the department store set-up surprise you or seem not to fit with the values in the lens?
    • Can you imagine ways in which adding one of these value that you do not currently hold to your repertoire...not replacing your existing values, but supplementing them, might benefit you?
    • Think about the job you have to do. Think about how you would normally approach it. Then, think about how your normal approach might be perceived by someone holding the values on this Lens. How would your approach be perceived? How might you modify your approach in order to better achieve your objectives?