The image below is an advertisement for an English school here in Japan. I shot it on a train a few weeks ago in Tokyo. I was struck by the piercing, obnoxious, pompous looks from those western dudes staring at, presumably, a Japanese person in some mythical meeting someplace. Nothing like scaring the hell out of someone to prompt them to take a class, eh? My goodness. Look at those guys.

Anyway, the text actually expresses an important concept, and it goes something like this: when you don`t agree with something while talking to these guys, you`ll be asked why you don`t agree, you`ll be expected to state your opinion, and, probably, you`ll have to defend that opinion. So, if that dynamic is a problem, many people just say yes and go along with the crowd in the meeting. I know many Japanese people do this in international meetings because expressing contrary opinions is done quite differently in English and Japanese. Westerners (Americans specifically) tend to be direct and Japanese tend to be indirect. But it goes beyond preference. Those styles are hard coded right into the structures of the languages themselves, and they are expressed in the cultures as well. There are exceptions both ways, of course, but the tendencies are pervasive and obvious, and a great deal of confusion can occur as a result. When communicating across languages, go out of your way to make sure your ideas resonate in the other language. Many times, they don`t. And you`ll miss that rather inconvenient fact if the other person is just saying yes. Yes doesn`t always mean yes, right? And there are a hundred different ways of saying no, right?

But here`s the kicker for me: this issue is also a problem within English; it`s not just a problem when communicating across English and Japanese. Many times native English speakers just say yes when confronted with aggressive people like the dudes in the image below. I mean, really, why would anyone want to talk to these guys? Especially outnumbered four on one. I think there are probably just as many communication problems stemming from command and control types within a language as there are resulting from distinctions in communication styles across languages. What always gets me, though, is why do these guys have meetings in the first place? They obviously don`t want other opinions. So, they deserve the yes they get -- and the problems resulting from that yes.

This is why it`s a pleasure working on teams that value open communication, and working for leaders who use communication to discover ideas and implement ideas. Human communication is an imperfect art. You have to use it as a tool to iterate so understanding emerges over time. Teams that don`t value this painfully simple concept aren`t worth your time no matter what language you speak.


Agree with what you're saying here. It's interesting to me that there is so much cultural (advertising) pressure to conform to western ideals. Yet in the meeting rooms, not much is happening.

From where i was sitting, this was never as simple as being a 'our way is better than their way' issue. The americans (and yes, it was mostly americans) would be aggressively creative, even going as far as trying to score points off each other in meetings with customers. Meanwhile the Japanese would be pathetically timid, never venturing an opinion on matters of the least consequence unless there was pre-agreed consensus.

This sounds so stereotypical that when it actually happens to you, you wonder if someone is having a laugh! And it also makes you very vulnerable to latching on to anyone who looks like they might provide an opening for progress... regardless of their suitability.

As you say, it's all about incrementally building an understanding / relationship over time. Which is very much at odds with the 'wham bam thank you mam' style of 'i'm flying out tomorrow so we've got to get this done' business.

Posted by Jon Ellis on April 27, 2009 at 12:51 AM JST #

Yep, I've seen the meeting dynamics you describe many times. I expect the Americans to be overtly aggressive (I'm American, after all), but I am usually tossed off guard by how long it takes the Japanese to come to a decision and to articulate that decision. Now, I wonder if that is the result of cross-cultural, cross-language communications or if that's just the way the Japanese do it while communicating Japanese to Japanese.

Posted by Jim Grisanzio on May 03, 2009 at 10:26 AM JST #

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