Saturday, October 15, 2022


favorite brands of the late 1970s
US Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield (1977 to 1988) endeared himself to the Japanese and others by making coffee for anyone who visited him. The former Marine, miner, college professor, and Senate Majority Leader (1961-1976) understood the power of this personal gesture. Neither an assistant nor office lady served the coffee. He did. It was thoughtful, magnanimous, and equalizing.

The self-effacing and down-to-earth Montana Democrat knew that this small, everyday courtesy would set his visitor at ease and be remembered fondly. It was instant coffee, not the best, but it created an amicable atmosphere for the meeting. Enough cream and sugar lessened the bitterness of the mismeasured Nescafé.

The Ambassador's coffee ritual drew upon the social psychology of meetings and first impressions. Whereas it is unlikely you will remember what was said at most meetings, you will remember how it made you feel. A contentious discussion can be tempered by personal kindness.

Mansfield's timeless coffee lessons, however, are lost on today's Japan managers and others. Or maybe they want to make clear that some visitors are more welcome or respected than others. The ambassador likely felt that such clarity was politically costly.
Inadvertently, over the past few weeks I have tested this Mansfield Principle. I have reached out to a number of people in Washington who have new positions among the think tanks related to Asia in order to meet and welcome them. Each time I have invited them for coffee in my art-filled office or at a place of their choosing. All the men were 10 to 30 years younger than me. All asked me to visit their office and all delayed or rescheduled the meetings.

The coffee ritual proceeded as follows: 
>At the new Washington branch of a South Asian think tank the executive director had his own cup of coffee from an outside coffee shop. I did not, but was offered a bottle of water. 
>At the new chair of a Northeast Asian program at a prominent think tank, I was offered nothing nor did my host drink anything. 
>At the largely US government-funded think tank, the meeting took place at the cafeteria and I was told to buy my own coffee. I declined.

And then there were my multiple offers to get together for coffee to meet the leadership in the new Washington office of a well-known Asia-Pacific government think tank. I am still awaiting an answer.

All the programs of these organizations appear in our Asia Policy Calendar. None are members of Asia Policy Point and all made it clear that they would never be. Often at their in-person events there is coffee and tea. 

But if you are ever in Washington, please stop by Asia Policy Point for fresh brewed Starbucks coffee. We also have international teas, herbal teas, bottle water, and soup. We like meeting new people and making them feel at home.

UPDATE: The February 16, 2023 Economist has also reports on the current coffee ritual and finds that In the matter of coffee and meetings, the blend is the problem.. Frankly, in my nearly 50 years in Washington, coffee was not a thing until recently. And when it was, it was meant as message to simply not to meet. Lunch was a thing. That was the gracious way to welcome newcomers or potential collaborators. Now people seem self absorbed and believe whatever they are doing is more important than someone requesting their help or a meeting. The Economist says these "meetings" should simply be a phone call while on the train home: short, forgettable, and convenient. Unsaid, is how such a phone call can hammer in that the caller is insignificant. In the matter of coffee and meetings, the blend is the problem.

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