Working In Japan

Interpreting Japanese non-verbal signals can make or break your time in Japan

This is what, ‘I’m embarrassed for you’ looks like. (photo from rawpixel on Pixabay)

If your company is transferring you to Japan, it’s critical you understand the non-verbal cues your colleagues are sending you

Foreign executives come to Japan understanding that Japanese colleagues are usually quieter than their western counterparts. I think most ‘foreigners’ (this is the accepted way for Japanese citizens to refer to westerners living in Japan) believe the ‘people skills’ they have employed to get to this point in their career will be more than enough to overcome the cultural barrier. This is hubris. Japan isn’t just another new culture, Japan is another planet.

In this article, I will share my 10-plus years of cross-cultural coaching experience tips with you in an attempt to make your time in Japan less frustrating and more effective.

  1. The tradition of silence in Japan
  2. My informal polling that suggests there is no consensus between Japanese people on the meaning of silence
  3. Strategies for getting the most input from your Japanese co-workers -*suggestions from my Japanese colleagues*

In all the time I’ve been working as a communication coach in Japan, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most common issues I’m retained to ‘fix’ is silence in meetings.

Westerners find silence frustrating and confusing. So right off the bat, I suggest you accept the following:

Japanese people are much more comfortable and accepting of silence than westerners are, Japanese staff will never completely adjust to your business style preferences, and it’s not reasonable to think they ever would.

Westerners will instantly feel Japanese people seem to listen more carefully, and generally seem to defer to the thoughts of the foreigner by smiling and nodding in apparent consent and virtually never directly challenging someone’s opinion.

Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security. When westerners come to Japan for the first time, it is common to believe you are more popular and respected by your Japanese colleagues than you really are. Many westerners I’ve worked with have been surprised when weeks or months later their project is going nowhere or staff questionnaires come back with a lot of negative feedback.

A history of silence

It wasn’t that many years ago, Japanese company presidents would feign falling asleep even during negotiations with another firm. The meaning?

I have complete confidence in the team negotiating on my behalf. In fact, my company doesn’t even need this deal.

It’s a pure powerplay. Historically, silence in the face of challenge or discomfort or distress was the ultimate display of mental and physical control. During one of the only samurai suicides (seppuku) ever witnessed by a European, it was reported the only sounds made during the excruciatingly painful execution was the sound of the accused’s body crashing to the ground and the pulsing hiss of blood spraying out of the decapitated man’s headless body. Click here to read the full account.

It’s an extremely graphic story, but it clearly demonstrates how complete control over one’s emotions and silence, even in the face of extreme hardship, has always been a Japanese virtue.

Even in today’s business environment, silence and restraint of personal opinion or emotion is very normal. When I go out with my Japanese friends I occasionally try to get a rise out of them by challenging their politics, but I am rarely successful. This is a country full of outwardly controlled people – cool and measured in their responses. Using aggression or strong pressure or a strong challenge or a direct accusation will almost certainly be met with … silence. Japanese people pushed too hard are embarrassed for themselves and they are embarrassed for you.

Awkward … Abe’s look says it all.

My informal polling suggests there is no consensus between Japanese people on the meaning of silence

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve sat down with some of my most trusted Japanese customers and friends to get their insights into the meaning of silence in Japan and the results were very interesting. My biggest surprise was there is no consensus about what silence means in a meeting. Of course, almost everyone started with the standard;

‘Japanese people understand the non-spoken message of other Japanese.’

I have no doubt this is at least partially true, but when asked if they could articulate this non-spoken message further, the truth came out — it can mean many different things.

Silence in a Japanese meeting might mean agreement. It might mean disagreement. It might mean I don’t have a suggestion. It might mean I don’t care. It might mean I didn’t do my homework and I don’t know what you’re talking about. However, the #1 answer I received was;

‘It might mean I have an idea but I’m too embarrassed to say it out loud because I don’t want to make a mistake in front of my colleagues.’

Strategies for getting the most input from your Japanese colleagues

It turns out Japanese colleagues are not so different from western colleagues; they don’t like making a fool of themselves in front of other people. Combine this internationally common work-place issue with a Japanese cultural bias that says silence is a kind of virtue, and foreign colleagues naturally run into trouble in their department meetings.

Saying, ‘Heah gang, what does everyone think about this idea?’ will almost certainly go nowhere. Only a team that has been together for a long time and trusts each other (and you) will offer ideas readily in front of the entire group. While some westerners might try to stand out from their peers and give you a direct answer, Japanese colleagues will tend to wait until they can talk to you privately. If your Japanese colleagues do answer you, it will usually be a very indirect, non-commital answer to humor you (remember, they don’t want you to be embarrassed in front of others either).

So what’s the solution for a western-thinking manager in Japan? If we want the true input of our Japanese team members I have a few suggestions (made by Japanese natives who regularly communicate with westerns for business) to help you avoid silence:

  • Ask questions directly to individual people and give twice the normal time to answer you normally would, but move on if you get a lot of, ‘mmmm …, that’s difficult …’. These responses may sound to you like your Japanese colleague wants more time to consider their answer, but in reality, these responses are simply a polite way to say, ‘I don’t know.’
  • In global meetings, English is a big hurdle. Simplifying questions, cutting out all idioms, and simplifying explanations will encourage non-native speakers to speak more.
  • Give questions as homework to give meeting members time to think about their answers (I think this usually gets the best results).
  • Try letting people write ideas down to submit them to the group rather than stating ideas out loud. This might be more time consuming but it takes the pressure off meeting attendees.
  • When faced with silence, foreigners should use a lot of clarification and confirmation to make sure everyone understands the questions.

Does everyone know what I mean when I say, synergize?

  • Check with the Japanese team leader to find out what silence means in a particular situation when you experience it.

I’m Edward Alexander Iftody, founder of Edward Alexander Consulting and author of ‘Surviving Work’.

Edward Iftody is a Communication Coach, author of Surviving Work, a veteran of the Canadian fin-tech industry and a blockchain enthusiast.

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