Don’t Touch the Fish. Because…

By Jon Miller Updated on May 16th, 2017

The last time I was in Japan, I was amused by a sound byte on the radio news. The Tsukiji fish market decided to close their doors to visitors because, “No matter how many times we tell them, they don’t listen.” In this case “they” were the foreigners who insisted on touching the merchandise, fresh fish, despite repeated requests.

What made me chuckle was the way the comment was phrased in Japanese, and the underlying thinking this exposed. “No matter how many times we tell [foreigners] they don’t listen,” suggests that the “don’t touch the fish” should reach all foreigners once it has been repeated a few times to individual visitors. Like a virus, the word should spread. Never mind that every day it is a different group of foreigners from various countries who are hearing the message, each for the first time. This is amusing because it highlights the idea in the Japanese mind that there is a set of people such that nationalityJapanese=”false”. In the case of the frustrated fishmonger, foreigners should as a group all know better than to touch the fish since “they have been told” several times.

Growing up in Japan, this was my worldview also. It was very simple. It was clear to me and my Japanese friends that they were in the blue group and I was in the yellow group. By this logic, I grew up thinking of Africans as my kinsmen because logically they were in the non-blue sphere with me. Only years later after being exposed to many more “foreigners” did I learn that most people had a much more complex worldview than this. Japanese-speaking foreigners were so odd at the time as to not have a mental representation in this diagram at all.

The lesson here is that we often dehumanize a group of people or depersonalize a group. We stereotype a behavior or deciding that since several individuals of a group “don’t get it”, all people of that group are the same. How many times have we heard that “management” is the problem or that “bean counters” don’t understand lean or that “the union” is tough to work with? These things may all be true on an individual basis. It is not helpful to communicate with groups of people as if they homogeneous. Communication is always dependent on every single person hearing, understanding and agreeing to a certain desired behavior.

Why do we follow rules? Why do we not follow rules?

An interesting experiment by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer sheds some light on why people do or do not comply with requests, instructions or rules. In the experiment she asked people waiting in line to use a copy machine, “I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” and about 60% of the people let her go ahead of them. When she asked instead “I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” the result was a 93% compliance with her request.

One of the conclusions of the experiment is that people like to know why. The added phrase “because I have to make some copies” tells people “because” which triggers compliance, according to the Langer. This findings of this study and others have been applied to advertising and marketing, to the point where a few key “compliance triggers” are common in marketing copy. Here are three of the most common:

  1. Reciprocation. I am doing something for you so please comply with my request.
  2. Social proof. Others are doing it so please also do it.
  3. Scarcity. If you don’t do it, you will lose the chance forever.

In marketing these are easy to spot: merchants will give away something for free and we find yourself buying from them (reciprocation). You read testimonials or hear that a neighbor or friend has bought (social proof) so we buy also. And if we hear “limited time only” or “limited space” (scarcity) and we feel the urge to buy.

This idea could be applied to the fishmongers at Tsukiji in getting the nationalityJapanese=”false” set to comply. They could have said “we are happy to share our workplace and show you our fresh and fascinating merchandise, but please don’t touch it because it damages the goods” (reciprocation) or “thank you for visiting us and please help keep our market clean like many other visitors before you have done” (social proof) and also “if you touch our fish, it will damage the goods and force us to shut the market to the public” (scarcity) which seems to have been the first and last resort in this case.

Applied to selling behavior change, whether to visitors to the fish market or our own selves and colleagues in the workplace, we need to do a better job of explaining why using the “because” trigger, doing something first for others, making it safe by showing that the change is accepted socially and finally by showing that time is scarce, resources are scarce, and that it’s never too soon to start wasting less.

Not the Tsukiji marketing slogan: “Fish so fresh, foreigners must touch!”

  1. Chris Nicholls

    February 12, 2009 - 2:30 am

    Hi Jon
    In 1984 I went to a fish market near Atsugi Station with a group of Colleagues from UK. There were some fanstatic displays of fresh fish and other seafood it was so artistic one of the group tried took a photograph. The Japanese fish monger went mad and we got the clear impression that he didn’t want us to take photo’s of his fish display, we were almost chased out of the market. Anyway thank you for an interesting blog about following rules and the fact that signs (even if they are in your own language) can be missunderstood. Visualisation is therefore important, however its very easy to cause missunderstandings if the visualisation image used means different things to some people.
    Best Regards

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