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Japanese People Prefer Indirect to Direct and Hate Emotional People

Japan—a Nation of Indirect Talkers

When we do teambuilding work with Japanese and non-Japanese companies, we ask our participants to do a self-assessment of their communication style. They discover their general preferences for direct and indirect speaking. They examine how they would communicate in different scenarios—for example, how would they let someone know they did not agree with their opinion? At the same time, they also develop an awareness of how their counterparts from other backgrounds prefer to communicate. As you might imagine, non-Japanese are relatively more direct in their speech than Japanese. Not only that, and every industry is different, but for example in the United States often the higher you go up in an organization the more likely executives are to speak very directly. This applies to both men and women. In America straight talkers are admired. A leader should not beat around the bush. Japanese on the other hand, want to avoid conflict and are more comfortable with expressing themselves indirectly. Once again, every industry, company and individual is different, but in Japan the higher the executive, the subtler their communication style. This doesn’t mean that Japanese executives are pushovers. It means that they don’t need to raise their voices to be heard.

Understandably, working with people from another culture can be frustrating. A certain level of misunderstanding and conflict is inevitable. What happens when tempers run high and nerves get frayed around the edges? Failure to keep frustration and anger under control can be fatal when you work with Japanese co-workers.

The Price of a Four-letter Word

A couple of years ago, I was at a meeting to kick off a feasibility study for a new project. Japanese were visiting from the head office. They were planning to ask an employee I will call Rick to head the project. Rick had shown his slides and now they were reviewing the presentation and asking questions. The Japanese asked question after question. They had also done some independent exploration of the subject and asked for some clarification of some discrepancies between their data and his. Perhaps Rick was expecting positive feedback for his idea and felt like they were poking holes in his plan with their questions. Rick started getting red in the face. Then he said it. “Why don’t you just shut up and listen? You don’t know a XXXX-ing thing about it.”

You could have heard a pin drop. The Japanese just looked at one another. When the project started, Rick was given a minor role in it. He left the company soon after.

The Sign of Maturity

In Japan, a mature person is one who is able to control his emotions. He does not let his anger or frustration show. In fact through childhood training and life experiences, he has learned to step away from situations of conflict and avoid becoming emotional. Naturally non-Japanese also try to keep negative emotions in check. The difference is that they are more forgiving of angry outbursts than the Japanese are. For the Japanese, anger is a tabooed emotion. No matter how righteous or how far provoked, the person who is moved to an open display of anger loses, no matter what.

Kabuki Strong Men

If you have ever seen Kabuki, you cannot help but be impressed by the bombastic swaggering of the larger-than-life heroes. When Ichikawa Danjuro II, the actor who developed this style was asked where he got the idea for it, he replied that it was easy. All he had to do was act like little two-year-old boy! In Japan only children (and Kabuki characters) can get away with being loud, arrogant and angry.

The Lives of the Samurai

Before Japan became a modern nation in the late 1800s, the country was broken up into separate domains ruled by a centralized government under the shogun. The domains were headed by former warlords called daimyo. A large class of armed warriors, the samurai, served under the daimyo doing a variety of jobs—accounting, teaching and managing domains. Under this system peace prevailed for almost 250 years.  Yet the samurai remained trained swordsman and retained the right to carry extremely lethal swords. You can imagine how ugly things could get if someone really lost their temper.

You might know a little bit about samurai ethos and practices from a little book called the Hagakure. It was written in the early 1700s by a samurai in the Nabeshima domain, in present-day Kyushu. In it are a number of practical tips for maintaining composure. These secrets were carefully passed down for generations. To avoid yawning, he recommends licking your lips while keeping your mouth closed. To control anger, he recommends licking your fingers and holding on to your earlobe and breathing in deeply through the nose. The fact that these tips come down to us today shows how important it is to modern Japanese to control one’s emotions, and that composure does not come easily.

Jekyll-Hyde

A few years ago I worked with a Japanese company whose American supplier was headed by a very domineering president. When he entertained the Japanese, the president was all charm and smiles. But during the day at meetings and in hallways, he could be seen yelling at his employees. Of course he never yelled at the Japanese, since they were the customer. The Japanese felt there was something important lacking in him as a leader and eventually found a different supplier.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

If you have a temper, don’t initiate conversations with the Japanese when you are upset. Sit down with yourself and think through why you want to engage the Japanese and what you hope to get out of it. Will raising the issue help resolve a problem, or do you just want to show them who’s right?

When you do start to speak, keep a careful eye on the reactions of the Japanese. If they look like they are nervous or DISMAYED (which is a very strong sign of disapproval) by what you are saying, then there has to be a better way of approaching it. A “I calls it as I sees it” attitude will only make things worse.  If you do sense yourself getting angry, excuse yourself from the room, or if you are chairing the meeting, call a break.

What happens if you do lose your temper? An apology preferably on the spot. But angry outbursts are a failure from which it is very hard to recover. We don’t need to be wearing long sharp swords to do irreparable damage to ourselves, our colleagues and to our organizations. For non-Japanese, losing our temper once in a while in public might be embarrassing. But with the Japanese it can mean losing your credibility forever.