Author and cross-cultural relations expert Laura Kriska has worked with large international companies for much of her consulting career. Though she was born in Japan to American missionaries, Kriska grew up in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, that she refers to as “very homogenous, very white.”
She was drawn back to Japan during and after college, and has built a 25-year career around helping disparate groups understand their differences in order to work together better. In her second book, The Business of WE, which she considers “part business, part personal development,” Kriska provides tools for helping people bridge all kinds of cultural gaps.
Being a globetrotting speaker and workshop trainer has been a challenge during the pandemic, but Kriska has embraced technology as a way to reach even more people all around the world. We talked to her about why cultural empathy matters now more than ever, and how mmhmm has helped her not just replace in-person experiences, but improve on them.
Tell us about your book, The Business of WE.
The work I've been doing for the past 25 or so years is helping bridge the culture gap between Japanese and American professionals, mostly in huge Japanese companies. In the beginning I worked primarily with this specific us-versus-them gap but then international opportunities expanded my work beyond Japan and the U.S. At the same time, yy life expanded through experiences inside the U.S. which helped me see that culture is not just limited to different countries. While I used to think of culture gaps being related to nationality—you know, in Japan they use chopsticks, in Brazil they kiss you on the cheek—I started seeing culture as something related to any aspect of a person's identity. Gaps can result based on differences in a person’s nationality, language, ethnicity, but also their race, religion, socioeconomic status, education and more.Any aspect of someone's identity can become the basis of some type of us versus them gap.
After many years in Japan and learning Japanese, I developed a fluidity between Japan and America. As a cross-cultural consultant I developed specific tools to help thousands of others start to develop their own ability to bridge culture gaps. This experience helped me to see how these tools could be applied inside Corporate America and beyond. For example, like many white people, I have become more aware of systemic racism that exists for people of color in our country. The us versus them race gap must be narrowed. Using the WE-building tools in my book I have challenged myself to reflect on my life choices regarding race. The Black Lives Matter movement has helped me see and understand truths about our history and about current circumstances that are important to know. I am engaged in my own process of bridging the race gap by taking WE-Building actions to remedy my ignorance. For example, I am reading, listening to podcasts and working to understand and narrow this critical gap. The WE-building tools can be useful in a wide range of situations far beyond international culture differences but differences related to race, ethnicity and more. I am not an expert on race or religion, rather, I am an expert on the process of bridging any gap. If a person is sincere about wanting to narrow a specific culture gap and has the ability to be honest when evaluating themselves, I believe it is possible to close almost any gap.
Two years ago I did a TEDx talk, and the topic was how small gestures can bridge the gap between us and them. And that's what turned into the book.
How can technology facilitate bridge-building?
The online platform that we all find ourselves in has some silver linings.
Each November I go to Tokyo to help facilitate a global workshop for an international company where they gather leaders from around the world. It’s a great opportunity but it is expensive and participation is limited. This year, the gathering will be virtual and there will be many more participants and the cost of the event will be much lower.
Another example is that I've been experimenting with translation and doing things bilingually. I did polling with Zoom, and I was able to do both Japanese and English simultaneously, and it was amazing. The application of virtual technology is still untapped especially when it comes to multi-lingual facilitation. I'm still trying to figure out how to leverage the virtual experience rather than just duplicate what used to be in-person. I want to provide a better experience.
How did you come across mmhmm?
My awesome husband is constantly on the internet, and during the pandemic he's like, “Oh, I think this would be good for you.” I checked it out and I was all in immediately. It's been game changing for my webinars.
I used to do in-person training classes for a whole day, and I know how to provide a meaningful experience for busy professionals. I've been doing this type of work for a long time, and I know how to engage people. In March, when everything got canceled, I had a session planned for late March with a client I worked with for years so we said, “Okay, let's just do it online on WebEx.” And it was a disaster. It was just me talking, and then the internet went out and somebody had to forward the slides. It was just awful. And so that's about the time when my husband hooked me up with mmhmm.
A few months later I had a job as the last speaker of the day with a client hosting a day-long conference and I used mmhmm. It was a huge hit. First, no one had seen this type of technology so I looked super cool. Then I used mmhmm tools to really engage the participants. For example, there were about 50 people from around the world so to start off and get some fun and energy into the session I used the rooms function to create a quick a contest by picturing myself in different international cities. Participants had to type my location into the chat. So, as I was talking, I put up Paris, and then I put up Venice, and so on. The first person to type in the correct city won and we said that person’s name out loud. Remember, this was a global group so they know international locations so everyone got into the fun.
One of the ways I like using mmhmm is to move myself around the slides to illustrate the points. I tell stories throughout my presentations using photos. I feel like this is one way that mmhmm gets closer to an in-person experience that static delivery doesn't. The whole purpose of in-person learning is engaging people, and mmhmm has helped me do that in a way I didn’t know was possible.
What’s changed for the better for you now?
Two months ago, I spoke to three completely different groups about WE-building for their organizations within one 24-hour period. Two were companies and one was a church group. I had been feeling a bit stressed before the three sessions especially since the timing was so close together. But after they were done I was like, “Oh my gosh, in 24 hours I spoke to a couple hundred people in Guatemala, Tokyo, Spain, Ireland, Houston—all these different people in a short amount of time.” I realized I could never have done that in real life.
Now that my book The Business of WE is published, I am eager to share the message of WE-building with as many people as possible. Teaching people how to narrow gaps and building trust with others is my life’s work. It’s my goal to inspire a WE-building revolution where people take action to bridge whatever gaps are relevant in their own lives in order to create a safer, more welcoming and productive world. Using technology is going to make sharing this message more effective .