Japanese culture in business
Anyone who has spent time working with the Japanese knows that their thoughts, motivations, and priorities are often hidden from view.
The Japanese are more likely to rely on non-verbal cues, and the context of what they say, than the literal meaning of the words they use to say it. This is so orthogonal to the American style that given enough time or interaction, a conflict or miscommunication is almost unavoidable.
Below is a list of six things that I’ve found even the most experienced business travelers don’t realize they don’t know about Japanese culture. How about you?
1. If you need a fork, be careful not to ask for it.
Let’s say you’re out to dinner with business associates in Japan when you notice the only utensils on the table are chopsticks — only you’re not a chopsticks person. Well have no fear because most Japanese restaurants you’re likely to visit will have a fork you can use. But don’t ask for it.
Effective communication in Japan is often indirect. Nuances, gestures, and non-verbal actions are used to ‘say’ much of what needs to be said. When your Japanese colleagues notice you're uncomfortable holding the chopsticks, staring at the chopsticks, or any other visual clue, they’ll pick up on it. They’ll ask you if you'd rather have a fork, and they’ll gladly ask for one on your behalf.
That’s why you won’t need to ask for a fork, here’s why you shouldn't ask. The Japanese derive meaning from what is left ‘unsaid’ and rely on context. So asking for a fork could unintentionally signal that you have no desire to learn about their culture — e.g., if you’re unwilling to learn about chopsticks, how would you handle more critical business situations with bigger cultural differences?
By the way, did you know that when you go out for drinks, or play golf with the Japanese that they use those opportunities to evaluate your character?
2. They do say 'no, ' and they say it often.
You may have heard the Japanese say "yes" when they mean "no". If only it was that simple. In fact, the Japanese say "no" all the time. Just not in so many words, so to speak.
Avoiding confrontation, saving face, and keeping harmony are a few of the values that influence how the Japanese communicate disagreement, or for that matter anything they think could be upsetting to another person.
So while the word "no" is avoided, there are many ways the Japanese indicate they mean "no.” Here's just a few:
- Indicate that something might be difficult
- Tilt head, sucking air between teeth
- Confirm that they understand
- Suggest an unrelated alternative to the problem
- Change the conversation
- Stay silent
3. It's better not to bow than to bow badly.
Bows are so integral to Japanese behavior that you’ll see the Japanese even unintentionally bowing to the person on the other end of a phone call.
But executing a correct Japanese bow can be a very complex matter. Social status, age, experience, and job position all come into play into how deep and how long to bow.