Silence is Golden: 3 Cross-Cultural Communication Tips for Japan

09/08/2016 04:08 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2016
Photo Attribution: Pixabay

From Bonsai to bullet trains, and tea ceremonies to tanshifunin postings, Japan is a country of contrasts in which the ancient and the ultramodern are seamlessly blended. Ancient temples are nestled among business and technology towers. Japanese concepts including emoji, kanban, kaizen, and keiretsu are recognized worldwide. According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, Japan was the third largest world economy at the beginning of 2016, behind only the U.S. and China, with a GDP of $4.3 trillion USD despite having only a fraction of those countries populations. Japan has consistently been a major player in the world economy and a major force in Asia. The success of international travel resides in meticulous planning and an appetite for adventure. Enjoy these tips to prepare you for your Japanese ventures.

1. Tatemae vs. Honne: Know the hidden difference.

Communication in Japan is epitomized by the implicit and unspoken, with a1. Tatemae vs. Honne: Know the hidden difference. deep belief in the importance of saving face and demonstrating respect. As such, the Japanese make a keen distinction between Tatemae, what one expresses publicly, and Honne, what one truly feels. Tatemae is considered a social obligation defined by public opinion and expectation, and the Japanese will almost infallibly respond according to Tatemae, even if it contradicts with Honne. This is explains why the Japanese rarely say “no.” They believe that denying a request is an embarrassment and causes both people to lose face. Instead listen for phrases like “I will consider it,” or “That would be very difficult,” which mean “No.” Remember that these phrases indicate Honne.

2. Hear one, understand ten: Listen with your ears and eyes.

Because Japanese culture relies on subtlety, many social cues are derived from facial expressions and body language. They believe that people should be so in tune with one another that through tiny gestures and common background knowledge, words will make up 10% of the message and non-verbal cues the other 90%. This maxim is known as “hear one, understand ten, or ichi ieba ju wo shiru in Japanese. These signals are much more discreet than Western gestures, and require careful attention. A slightly raised eyebrow, clenched teeth, or a twitch of the mouth can indicate disapproval or reproach. Prolonged eye contact is viewed as a sign of disrespect. Once you begin studying these behaviors, you will begin to notice a pattern and be able to express yourself smoothly without a word.

3. A Moment of Silence: Let it be.

While Westerners often feel ill-at-ease in a room where they can hear the clock ticking, the Japanese often revert to silence during a conversation in order to give way to contemplation and peaceful reflection. In Japan, frequently, during formal meetings, professionals or officials will close their eyes and give the impression of sleeping, a shocking sight for Western visitors. In reality they are taking time to quietly reflect according to a long-standing cultural tradition. To the Japanese, this practice communicates wisdom and self-control because excessive conversation and nervous chatter make them feel uncomfortable. If you are in a meeting or sitting around a table in Japan that suddenly falls quiet, do not feel pressured to continue the conversation; instead sit back and enjoy the stillness.

Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural consultant, an international protocol expert and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. She is accredited in intercultural management, is the resident etiquette expert for CBS Austin’s We Are Austin, regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, The New York Times, and numerous other media. She is the best-selling, international award-winning author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, named to Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2015 and recipient of the British Airways International Trade, Investment & Expansion Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.

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