Time and again Japan has proven itself to be a significant presence on the world stage. With a communication style notably different from Western nations, business professionals and tourists alike can initially find it difficult to comprehend the full scope of meaning in any interaction there. However, understanding the importance of Japan’s nonverbal culture can greatly improve their experience.
Nonverbal Communication in Japan
Japanese culture is considered “high context,” meaning that people rely far less on words to communicate meaning than they do on nonverbal cues. The Japanese, who illustrate cultural differences in nonverbal communication, value group needs above the individual and place a strong emphasis on social harmony. Because of this, most interactions are defined by a certain degree of vagueness and ambiguity.
- It is common for the Japanese to maintain a passive expression while speaking.
- Outwardly exhibiting negative emotions is considered a burden to others. Therefore, smiles may have a wide range of meanings including to express happiness or agreement or to mask feelings of anger, displeasure or grief.
- When negative emotions are expressed, they are done so subtly. Negative expressions may include inhaling through clenched teeth, the tilt of a head or the scratching of an eyebrow.
- Eye contact, particularly for prolonged periods of time, is considered disrespectful. It is also often specifically avoided in crowded situations to preserve personal privacy.
- The Japanese sometimes look away or sit silently with their eyes closed when they are part of an audience. This demonstrates attention and sometimes agreement with the speaker.
- Silence is common in conversations. Holding back from speaking is considered to preserve harmony and demonstrate trustworthiness and reliability.
- Personal space requirements also differ depending on context. While in uncrowded situations, the Japanese may require a great deal of personal space; when in crowded situations (such as on public transportation), it is common for them to accept a fair deal less.
In Japan, business culture is taken very seriously. The following advice is specific to professional life.
Business Communication in Japan
Japanese culture is hierarchical, something which extends naturally into business settings. This social structure affects everything from how to address a stranger to where one sits in a meeting. In addition, the Japanese place a high value on personal relationships. Building these relationships whenever possible — including outside of work — is therefore expected.
Business cards are an incredibly important part of work culture in Japan. When using them:
- Know that they are exchanged regularly and done so with great ceremony.
- Make sure they are of high quality and printed with bilingual information.
- Give and receive them in two hands, accompanied by a slight bow.
- Business cards should always be treated with the utmost respect. (This means they should not be folded, bent or stuffed in a briefcase.)
Gifting is another highly ritualistic activity important to business etiquette.
- The ceremony of gift giving is as, if not more important, than the gift itself. The gift should be wrapped nicely and given at the end of an exchange or event.
- Gifts that are considered taboo include white flowers (such as lilies, camellias or lotus blossoms) or items given in groups of four or nine.
- Gifts are usually opened in private after the giver leaves, in order to save face should the receiver dislike the present.
Meetings and Negotiations
In general, it is important to always be mindful of hierarchical structures within all business settings. During meetings and negotiations:
- Wait to be introduced instead of introducing yourself. Bow before shaking hands.
- When you are in a meeting, it is crucial that you appear interested in the speaker.
- Conservative manner and dress are required.
- When sitting in a meeting, the highest-ranking person is placed farthest away from the door. The rest of the attendees are generally arranged around the room in descending order.
- Never lose your temper or raise your voice during negotiations.
- Group consensus is highly valued when making decisions.
Although understanding the full extent of Japanese culture can take a lifetime to master, understanding these basic concepts can help tremendously.
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