Some thoughts on working with Japanese teams

An interesting but subtle difference between various regions of the world is known in jargon terms as ‘specific or diffuse culture’. A more straightforward reading of this is “how much of yourself do you put into a business relationship?”

In the West we are accustomed to ‘compartmentalising’ our dealings with others, depending on the situation. For example, it is fairly acceptable to be quite critical and direct in a team meeting about a particular project, while being totally calm and affable with the same guys at lunch. We’re also used to pushing hard to clarify an objective or deliverable, before we explore views about how we might achieve it. These are features of a ‘specific’ culture and we are used to it in the UK and the US. Another example is in our parliament, where two members on the opposite sides of the political spectrum could argue aggressively with each other in a debate but be happy to have a drink together after the session.

Other cultures work differently. They are sometimes known as ‘high context’ cultures – there is much more that strangers are expected to know before effective communication can happen. Rather than the Objective dominating our dealings, the Relationship itself has far more impact.

In low context, specific culture like the US, we are much more comfortable with the philosophy of ‘it’s nothing personal’. The watch words are ‘approval or disapproval’, focused on the idea under discussion – i.e. ‘I like you but your idea stinks’. In a high context, diffuse culture, and Japan is a prime example of this, the watch word is ‘esteem’. Therefore you have to be extremely careful about telling your contact that his idea stinks because you may be sabotaging any respect that you have carefully built up.

So, what’s the best way forward to avoid what could be a serious loss of trust? Well, take your time to learn the history of the issue at hand and, if possible, the people involved with it. But if you can’t do that easily, just go with the flow – meetings with the Japanese may well have a ‘flow’ quality rather than rigid nailing down of each issue before moving on. If you do have to criticise or find fault with some aspect of a project, do it gently. Perhaps talk to them about how to provide positive and negative feedback, before actually doing it. Lastly, use language like “I’d like to find out a bit more of the background” or “I’d like to spend time getting to know the team.”

Should I use humour?

In the UK we sometimes use humour to break the ice in business meetings, and at the start of presentations. ‘Start with a joke’ they say.

Why should we be careful about this? Well, there’s an interesting measure of ethnic cultural difference, and its jargon name is ‘Neutral vs Affective’. it relates to the comfort we have in showing emotion in public.

But it’s not just about ‘jokes’ or humour. It also relates to something much more important and it’s how we sense that others are enthusiastic and motivated about certain things. At one extreme of this scale for the example are the Italians, who are most comfortable with expressing how they feel about an issue. Not far behind are the Americans, and we know the stereotypes of ‘Yay!’ with fists raised, open displays of enthusiasm, and so on.

An emotional approach is a problem when meeting with Japanese business people, who as an ethnic group are, as research has shown, at the other (‘neutral’) extreme, and from many nations surveyed, are the least comfortable with expressing emotion in business.

We British are at a slight advantage in that we are typically closer to the ‘neutral’ end. This is evidenced by those who observe as tourists that people don’t talk on crowded London underground trains! But we have our own ways of introducing a little bit of humour and emotion when we get together. Sarcasm and self-denigration for an example. I’ve seen lots of talks that start with a Dilbert cartoon, completely opposite in message to the body and messages of the talk! Even this though, although it’s OK in the UK, often raises a very half-hearted laugh.

With an interaction with the Japanese until you’re really (really) sure of yourself – probably best to avoid the humour (until they know you). Not many understand British sarcasm anyway, so steer clear of that too. Make it to the point, rational, analytical, clear. Don’t try too hard to appeal to feelings. The stereotyped American might think it’s deadly dull, but the Japanese audience might increase their respect for you.

John Faulkes

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