The fascinating Japanese language is recognised globally as an important modern language. Certainly, Japanese is a difficult language for a Westerner to learn but unlike other languages, Japanese has distinct non-verbal elements that also need to be taken into account.
The non-verbal elements of the Japanese language can provide both obstacles and gifts as far as communication goes. On one hand, it can be a very strange thing to rely so heavily on things like body language to convey a message, especially in a professional setting. On the other hand, it can be a blessing not to have to rely on learning as much of the spoken language as one ordinarily would have.
Communicating in Business
English is the lingua franca of the business world in Japan and you will often find that those present in meetings have been specially selected for their knowledge of dealing with foreigners and their command of English. However, those higher up in seniority may still wish to speak via a translator, regardless of the fact that they may understand English well.
The translation of what you say in a meeting may seem lengthy as often the interpreter includes contextual conversation. This can make a non-Japanese speaker feel somewhat distanced from the conversation. It is important in this situation to demonstrate your continued attention and focus on the conversation by other means, such as body language and eye contact.
Non-verbal communication, like body language, holds a lot of weight in Japanese culture both inside and outside of a professional context. It is important to be aware of how your actions and movements may be perceived.
Declining in Japan
It is considered normal and polite for conversations in Japan not to be too confrontational or heated. Therefore, any refusals that may be required during the course of a discussion must be done in an indirect manner. Saying no outright, or raising your voice in any way will be seen as rude.
This is an area that many westerners tend to struggle with as they are more accustomed to open and direct declining when appropriate. In fact, in Japan, the word ‘no’ is used very infrequently.
There are a few ways in which the Japanese will decline or refuse. One of the more common ways is to use a pause, or even, when dealing with written correspondence, to not reply.
Silence, in general, is used in Japanese communication far more than in the West. While most westerners often see silences in conversation as a sign that the discussion is faltering and therefore find them uncomfortable, the Japanese perceive them in a totally different way. Lengthy pauses in conversation are frequently used to reflect on what has been said so far and to allow time for a meaningful next comment. Though the temptation can be to fill the silence, perhaps with a witty comment, this will not go over well and it is a much better idea to just accept the silence and use it in the way the Japanese do.
In the same way that ‘no’ is used in a different way in Japanese communication, so too is ‘yes’. The Japanese word for ‘yes’ is ‘hai’ and is used primarily as a supportive utterance. It will only rarely be used to agree or confirm something. Agreement or confirmation tends to be more emphatically and specifically conveyed.
Discussions in Japan can take significantly longer than they normally would in a Western setting. Don’t be tempted to hurry things along, but adapt instead to the often slower pace of conversation so common in Japanese communication.