Linguist Richard Lewis discusses techniques for working with people from different cultures in his best-selling book, “When Cultures College,” now in a 2005 third edition. Here’s an excerpt:
The Japanese are conditioned by exceptional historical and geographical constraints as well as by their thought processes in a language very different from any other. How does this affect foreign businesspeople dealing with them?
At the beginning there is the first meeting. The Japanese, unlike Westerners, worry about meeting newcomers.
In their own society Japanese executives know exactly the manner they should use to address someone, depending on a superior, inferior or equal status. Americans who stride across the room and pump their hands are a source of great embarrassment. First, unless they have been properly introduced, the Japanese are unable to define the stranger’s rank. Secondly, it is likely that Westerners will initiate a person-to-person exchange of views in the first meeting, which poses an even greater danger to the Japanese. They represent their group; therefore, they cannot pronounce on any matters there and then without consultation. The exchange of visiting cards is a familiar ceremony in Japan, although the information gained from these will be insufficient without prior knowledge.
Westerners are individuals, but the Japanese represent their company, which is part of their group, which in turn represents Japan. In these circumstances, how can they deal face-to-face, alone?
Westerners often complain that on 6 visits to a company they will be met by 18 different people in groups of 3 and will have to say the same thing six times. This is time-consuming but necessary for the Japanese, as all the members of the group have to become acquainted with the visitors.After this ordeal, Westerners often press for a quick decision. They will not get one. If they impose a time limit, the Japanese will back out quietly.
As we all know, Asians do not like to lose face. I had a striking example of this during my first week in Japan when a colleague and I were negotiating for the lease of a building. With some difficulty we had secured an appointment with the president of the company that owned the building.
He was a seventy-year-old man, and he spoke for half an hour (through an interpreter), explaining the merits and high reputation of the building, terminating his remarks with the price for the rental. It seemed a little on the high side to me. My colleague, who had been brought up in an Arab country, promptly offered him half. The elderly president and the interpreter immediately rose to their feet, smiled and bowed simultaneously and left the room. We never saw them again.
The Japanese do in fact negotiate, but not in the Arab manner. Face must not be lost and politeness must be maintained at all times. The Japanese go to incredible lengths to be polite. Their reluctance to say no is well-known. If the Japanese do not wish to enter into a deal with a foreign partner, they will not come out with a negative reply. However, you will not be able to get in touch with your contact in that company thereafter. He or she will always be ill, on vacation or attending a funeral.
The following list includes those points most important to remember when negotiating with the Japanese.
- The first person you contact in a Japanese company (or who contacted you) will be present throughout the negotiating period.
- The Japanese normally negotiate in teams, each member of which has a different specialty.
- The members of the team may change or increase, as the Japanese wish as many members of their company as possible to get to know you.
- There will be a senior staff member present who will dictate tactics, but he is rarely the one who does the talking. Each member will ask questions within the field of his or her competence, using the best linguist as the interpreter.
- Their questions constitute an information-gathering process only. They are not about to make a decision based on your answers.
- However strong the team, they will have to refer back to the head office. Therefore, no decision will be made at the first meeting and probably not at the second.
- Their decisions will eventually be made by consensus; therefore, no person will stick out as an individual.
- The second meeting tends to go over the same ground as the first, but the questions will be in more depth – and will come from a different team.
- The Japanese negotiators bring their company’s position to the table with little authority to change it, so there is little flexibility in their position.
- Flexibility is more evident between meetings, when they have checked with their head office.
- The Japanese are willing to go over the same information many times to avoid later misunderstandings and achieve clarity, although the ambiguities of their own speech style often leave Westerners far from clear on their intentions.
- They are cautious, skilled in stalling tactics and won’t be rushed.
- Their decisions are long-term, for example: Do we want these people as partners in the future? Do we trust them? Is this the right direction for the company to be heading? Big decisions take time.
- Once the Japanese company has made its decision, the negotiating team then expects quick action and will criticize the partner if there is a delay.
- The Japanese will break off negotiations if the other side is too blunt, impatient or fails to observe protocol.
- If great respect is shown and very reasonable demands are made, they are capable of modifying their own demands greatly.
- They go to great lengths to preserve harmony throughout the negotiations and will strive to bring the two “respectable” companies closer together. They are happy to socialize in between meetings.
- They never say no, never refute entirely another’s argument and never break off negotiations as long as harmony prevails. This leaves them room for renegotiation some time in the future if circumstances change.
- They will cancel a meeting if they think the conditions on which it was set up have changed.
- They will show exaggerated respect to your senior negotiator and expect you to do the same to theirs.
- They will sometimes bring to the meeting a very senior person (e.g., former minister) who is only a consultant to the company, but commands (your) respect and deference.
- They will use a middleman or go-between if they can find one. After all, if both sides trust him, then there must be harmony.
- Negotiating style will be non-individualistic, impersonal and unemotional, but emotion is important (it is just under the surface). Logic and intellectual argument alone cannot sway the Japanese. They must like you and trust you wholeheartedly, otherwise no deal!
Why are Japanese companies so successful? If there is one key to Japanese success it is their ability to conduct a company’s internal affairs in a spirit of harmony and cooperation. Americans and Europeans seem to have more energy as individuals, but they are often pulling in different directions within a company. There is certainly submarine infighting below the surface in Japanese companies, but once unanimity of agreement has been reached (and the president insists on it), then everyone pulls together.
The Japanese will discuss and discuss until everybody agrees. Such endless discussion often results in slow decisions, but the Japanese think the gain in solidarity is worth it. Results seem to show that they are right. All this is not without its tension, however, since Japanese executives frequently have to give in, even if their ideas are good ones.
The Japanese attitude toward foreigners, even educated people and high-ranking businesspeople, is clear: you are always an outsider. Your efforts to speak Japanese will be smiled on, but seldom taken seriously. As many senior Japanese do not speak English, Japanese interpreters are often used. They can be unbelievably bad and seldom give real translations when Americans or Europeans wish to be blunt.
Often the message, lost in an endless labyrinth of polite vagueness, will not get across at all. Translators and interpreters in Japan have an unhappy time. Usually they will be abused by Westerners for not translating properly and criticized by their own superiors for being unclear. They are not really trusted anyway; after all, they speak two languages.
How to Empathize with the Japanese
What should a foreign businessperson who goes to Japan do? First, restrict your body language. Do not wave your arms about, do not touch people unnecessarily and above all do not put your arm around their shoulders as you pass through doorways. Do not report conversations you have had with a Japanese to third parties unless it is clear that you may do so. Do not mention business for the first 15 minutes of any conversation. Never address any Japanese businessman by his first name and never, ever talk about World War II.
If you are dealing with a group of Japanese (and they usually come to see you in groups), address your remarks to the senior man and bow to him as low as he bows to you, but watch carefully; he may put out his hand Western-style when you attempt to bow Japanese-style. You may talk about golf or ski jumping as much as you like, but do not tell jokes unless they are at your own expense and can easily be understood.
It is not a good idea to ask to see a Japanese home; even important businesspeople often live in tiny apartments, a fact that causes them some embarrassment. They are quite happy to go to your home, however, since you are likely to have more space. Do not shake hands with them more than necessary as they regard this practice as unhygienic. However, you should always present your visiting card immediately at the first meeting.
When dealing with a Japanese company that may superficially resemble your own, do not assume similarities that are not there. Japan has modernized, not westernized, and true similarities are mainly only technical. Don’t assume that they mean the same as you do when they use words like leadership or motivation. They have something quite different in mind.
If there seem to be a lot of don’ts with regard to your behavior when dealing with the Japanese, there is also a list of dos. Above all you should be modest and reserved. Bow if you can manage it and begin your conversation by asking about their families. It is quite correct to enthuse over the Japanese economic miracle, as well as their reputation for honesty and lavish hospitality. Another positive subject is the long unbroken history of Japan and its achievements in the arts.
It is also quite correct for you to apologize for your rudeness when you last met. The Japanese always do this whether they were rude or not. What it means is that you speak in a disparaging manner about your unpunctuality or poor hospitality or any other personal defect you can think of. For instance, the Japanese apologize regularly for having had a cold, having taken you to see a poor film, having given you a ride in their noisy car or having beaten your country at karate.
Finally, if you want to do business with the Japanese you must also try to look the part. Remember that normally all Japanese executives dress conservatively in dark blue or gray with a white shirt and dark tie. A Japanese businessman looks at you in a manner not unlike that of the Spaniard. He must like you and he must trust you, otherwise no deal.
He likes people who are clean, well-dressed, not too hairy, not too young, modest, of quiet voice and above all, polite. You must also convince him that you are respectable. For a Japanese, respectability comprises a certain age and several of the qualities just mentioned, and also a proven record in business, an absence of any doubtful partners or deals and evidence of unquestioned solvency. Many Japanese businesspeople will ask you openly at the first meeting for a list of your board of directors, the financial state of your company, your chief customers and a chairman’s report.