Working with Japanese Collegues
From the Headquarters view point....
When I was first approached by my line manager asking me whether I would take the position as a 'study buddy' for four Japanese working colleagues my immediate feelings were excitement, thrill, elation but with some trepidation.
My experience with Japanese people was absolutely zero and in fact my knowledge of the geographical location of Japan was questionable. The only Japanese contact I ever had previously was when I was once recommended to read the novel 'memoirs of a Geisha'! However when I was asked I was also informed that training would be involved, a short course addressing how best to approach practical negotiations with Japanese business partners with the emphasis on understanding cultural differences, etiquette and expectations. The course also provided a session to look at the language and learning Japanese phrases together with understanding key concepts of Japanese societies and basic philosophies.
Japanese rely hugely on non-verbal messages (tone of voice, facial expressions etc..)
I looked upon this assignment as a challenge.
On the morning of their arrival I rehearsed religiously in front of the mirror, and whilst journeying to work, the greeting phrase 'hajimemashite' ('How are you') followed by 'Dee Marshall, desu' ('name, Dee Marshall') and ending with 'Dozo, yoroshiku' (it is a pleasure). When I introduced myself I simultaneously made the effort to bow as Japanese meet formally by bowing. The reaction from all four was of delight, surprise and laughter. The exchange of name/business cards was next. I learned from the course that having a name card is almost as important as having a name! The business card to the Japanese is a symbol that must be highly respected and it was emphasised that the card exchange procedure is valuable and portrays a good example of the importance of social standards in Japanese society.
Another concept learned from the course is that Japanese rely hugely on non-verbal messages (tone of voice, facial expression etc.). The Japanese pay far more attention to non-verbal communication than Westerners do, so it was important during the introduction not to be over powering or intimidating in any way.
The Japanese visitors constantly wore a smile on their faces. I remember how they would laugh at something that was not necessarily funny. During their training programme after explaining a topic I would naturally ask if everyone understood or if there were any questions. There were times where the response would be a blank smile and again what I learned from the course was that Japanese people have a strong reluctance to say 'NO'. The smile is present so as not to hurt your feelings and to avoid you losing face i.e. they aim to avoid an unpleasant situation. Also, it is known that the Japanese laugh for many reasons, not only when they are happy or amused but also when embarrassed or unable to understand. Therefore depending on the response, and carefully observing the body language, this was a signal for me to either repeat, write down or clarify what I had previously explained.
Another experience when communicating with the Japanese colleagues is the silence after explaining something. To a Westerner silence may seem uncomfortable but the Japanese consider it an important part of the communication process. It is also known that the Japanese tolerate longer periods of silence. Having that in mind, when I encountered silence I did not feel put off or uncomfortable. If anything, the silence to me, was a good indicator that they were thinking and no doubt mentally translating, as their English was a little weak. So silent periods were not uncomfortable at all but periods of mental digestion!
A big imprint on my memory was the way the Japanese colleagues would show overwhelming appreciation for what you did. Even for the smallest of favours I can remember the constant and frequent 'thank you'. Also they apologised profusely for the slightest inconvenience that they may have caused. Again the course taught me about this concept and I was told not to be surprised if favours are not only responded by repeat 'thank yous' but could also expect small gifts!
An important factor when socialising with Japanese people is the concept of KAO, meaning 'face'. I learned that the Japanese are always concerned about what others think of them i.e. the face they perceive that they present. A Japanese would 'lose face' if told off in front of others. To lose face is one of the greatest social disgraces to endure and instantly the relationship built up could crumble.
This concept meant that discretion was often used to avoid this happening because for a Japanese to lose face in front of a foreigner is doubly humiliating.
Despite all these conducts and behaviours, not once did it put me off or frighten me in any way. Indeed I relished the challenge knowing that I had the confidence and background to take on the role successfully. If anything I realised it was important for me not to loose my identity but just simply be myself. However it was important to use the acquired knowledge from the course and to apply it when necessary. The course gave me invaluable training and gave me the necessary tools to use at my disposal. I enjoyed the experience from start to finish and if asked again I would without a doubt, jump at the chance!
Dee Marshall
Welwyn, United Kingdom