At first I was intimidated by his very senior rank within the company. But then he opened up about his own vulnerabilities and fears.
Have you ever felt that your job was beyond your capabilities—and that you just weren’t up to the challenge? It happened to me in a particularly bad way at one point, when I was teaching English in Japan.
What I ended up learning, to be brutal, was that it wasn’t all about me after all.
The others around you—even those who seem the strongest and most powerful—can also have fears and areas of exposed weaknesses—which are just as frightening to them, as your own are to you.
I’d been teaching Eikaiwa (English conversation) with a Japanese language school for about a year. Our biggest client by far was a huge multinational corporation headquartered near our office. They commissioned lots of classes from us, from groups of beginners through to advanced 1:1 lessons for their top executives.
The Eikaiwa market was aggressively competitive, and it was a constant battle to hold onto contracts with other companies snapping at our heels. This contract was especially precious, as the bulk of my employer’s income.
And the customer was not tied to us by any loyalty. Indeed, they’d started to explore the services of other language schools, and were currently buying in some classes from other companies in addition to us.
So the pressure was definitely on to perform well as a teacher.
This was measured by detailed student evaluations at the end of every ten-week course—and the all-important renewals as each course rolled over into the next.
So far, all had been going well. I’d been teaching groups of beginners and lower-intermediate students, and enjoying the quiet challenge of bringing out the best in these classes. Typically, the students were diligent, keen to learn, and had a ton of vocabulary and grammar knowledge stashed away from their school examination days. They just lacked confidence, and practical experience of English conversation.
The main tasks were to reinforce the basics, and encourage and empower the students to unlock their knowledge. For this reason, the students were often so-called “false beginners”; making surprisingly fast progress in a short time.
But then one day, I was assigned to teach a 1:1 Director class. My heart sank.
It was easy to keep my beginners happy, by being kind and patient with them, playing games and so on, to get them speaking. But this was a whole new ball game.
Generally, my company played to people’s strengths, which is why I was teaching nervous beginners, while more confident teachers full of credibility and commercial experience were given the director classes. But for some timetabling reason or another, I was the only person available to teach this class.
I was also scared because my company’s offer was “Business English” and I didn’t really know what that meant. All my work experience to date had been as a care home worker back in England. When teaching beginners, my lack of knowledge about “business” didn’t matter, because at that level it was fine to talk about families, holidays, hobbies and so on
But for a senior executive, I assumed I’d need to help him with business matters—only I had no clue what “business” actually was . . .
The first lesson took place, and it was as bad as I’d feared.
I showed up with an advanced textbook, only to find that his English was very good indeed, and the book was too easy for him. He’d lived in the USA for many years, and dealing with American parts of the organization was a big part of his role. He radiated gravitas and status. I had never even met someone this senior and powerful, let alone tried to make them my student. How on earth was I going to make this work?
It was also awkward, because he was concerned about having a British teacher, when he wanted to study American English. He asked if I could teach him in American English, albeit he understood and accepted I wouldn’t be able to get the pronunciation right. I assured him that I would, but knew this was probably a lie. Because apart from obvious things like the spelling of “color”, I didn’t even really know what the difference was. Again, at the beginner level this had hardly mattered until now.
I tried very hard to prepare for the second lesson.
This time I found a textbook in the office which moved away from teaching grammar and vocabulary, and focused on how to improve your general writing skills – structure, paragraphing and so on. It was better for him, but still wasn’t hitting the spot. It was hard to read his thoughts behind his neutral facial expression and polite demeanor; but I was certain he was bored and disappointed with my teaching.
I knew how much this lesson was costing his company, as had seen the paperwork; and it was an amount beyond belief. His time as a company director was also surely too valuable to waste on this. I was certain that he was going to terminate the class any day now—and that I would have to face the consequences of failing, and letting my company down.
He had all the power and status, and I was no one, with nothing to offer him—just another expendable foreign English teacher.
We carried on like this for a few weeks. It wasn’t all bad. He was a nice person, and sometimes we chatted at the end of class. He liked the fact that I was starting out in the Japanese martial art Aikido, and we shared stories about our very different lives. But overall, I felt scared and insecure about not being good enough for him, and was constantly waiting for the bombshell to drop.
Then one day I turned up, to find him with a computer printout on his desk. He said hesitantly: Before we start, can you just help me with something? Can you read this and explain it to me?
Of course I could! I was really pleased and hopeful that I might be useful to him in some way for once! I took the paper, expecting some kind of boring memo about shipping, or tax rates, or whatever it was that business people wrote to each other about.
It was an emailed joke, of the funny story type, sent by some American guy to a load of recipients. I looked at him in surprise.
He said: My friend sent me this but I don’t understand it. Can you explain it to me?
What I hadn’t realized at that point, was that the Japanese and Western senses of humor are very different. To the point that it can be hard for us to understand why each other’s jokes are supposed to be funny. The language blogger Adam explains it like this: 
The standard explanation you’ll get from a Japanese person is that an “American Joke” is:
- filled with sarcasm
- requires cultural knowledge
- requires concentration
- is difficult to understand
This joke met all of these criteria, and I explained it to the director. At last I had something of use to give him! He listened carefully and took it all on board. He still didn’t think it was funny; but at least he understood now what it meant, and why it was supposed to be funny. He was very appreciative.
For the first time, he opened up a little, and carefully admitted how stressful and difficult it felt to do business with Westerners in his second language, while they had the natural advantage of using their first language. How he was constantly, secretly anxious about being inadequate due to his poor (his view not mine) English.
It was a turning point. At last we both understood what he needed from these lessons.
He needed a safe, private place where he could check out his understanding of idioms and cultural nuances without feeling judged or losing face—and build his surprisingly fragile confidence in using English. We never picked up another textbook again.
I was amazed to realize that even though he came over to me as an intimidating, outstandingly successful man—with the world at his feet and the ability to conduct high-stakes business in two languages—he too had his own fears and insecurities. In a way, his needs were unexpectedly close to those of my beginners, even though they existed in a completely different sphere to him within the company, as engineers, office clerks and so on.
And in time, I understood that it wasn’t just my beginners he resembled. It also struck me how very much we had in common with each other after all.
In many ways, we could not have been more different—our age, race, culture, gender, career status, life experience and so on were all poles apart. But in the end we were also exactly the same. Just two anxious human beings, both scared of failing in our jobs. But doing our best nonetheless to learn, grow and overcome our limitations—and humbly grateful to have each other’s support in doing so.
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