Hidden gaps you may not notice — How to better understand cross-cultural communications in business with Japanese (1)

Having lived in Europe for 20+ years, and being Japanese myself, I have come to notice a number of hidden gaps in business communication between Europeans and Japanese. In international business, people communicate in English, and they write well. It is ironical that well written English hides essential communication gaps, while there is no problem in the texts.

The gap is not a matter of communicating with foreign languages, but largely a cultural issue. In other words, the context of languages used by both Europeans and Japanese are different. Languages in business need to be understood in line with the way of thinking of your counterpart of communication, not yours.

Such hidden gaps fascinate me, as they offer valuable clues of cross-cultural communications.

I am writing essays on the hidden communication gaps in business from time to time, picking up interesting episodes I come across in my day-to-day business life.

Please share with me a joy and magic of cross-cultural communications!

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Japanese don’t say NO. Understand the answer in the context.

Mr. Suzuki’s case

Mary, a director general for Europe of Company A, plans to meet with Ms Tanaka, a director of a company B, during her next business travel to Japan. Mary has asked Mr. Suzuki, a manager in the Tokyo branch of Company A, to take an appointment with Ms Tanaka. Though Mary knew her in person, she has asked Mr. Suzuki for coordination, as she knows it a Japanese way of working.

During the course of e-mail exchange with Mr. Suzuki, however, Mary has become unsure if she is meeting with Ms Tanaka on Wednesday or Thursday as Mary requested.

To clarify the date, Mary wrote to Mr. Suzuki; “Dear Mr. Suzuki, Please could you seek her confirmation as to the good date for her, Wednesday or Thursday?”

Mr. Suzuki replied: “Dear Mary-san, I already communicate with Ms Tanaka-san. She is so busy from Wednesday to Thursday.”

Mary thought, “Yes or NO??? Mr. Suzuki appears to be still negotiating the date, though Ms Tanaka will be busy during these two days. Will I meet Ms Tanaka?”

Ms Tanaka’s case

Mary has decided to write to Ms Tanaka directly, as Mary didn’t want to push Mr. Suzuki further. Mary is well aware of the delicacy of communications with Japanese people.

“Dear Tanaka-san,

I hope you are well. I understand that you will have engagements on Wednesday and Thursday. Please do not worry, we can organise another time. If you come to Europe, let me know in advance so we can organise lunch or coffee here.”

If Ms Tanaka would reply, “I am so sorry that we can’t meet this time. I look forward to seeing you my next travel to Europe”, there will not be a meeting in Tokyo. If her reply would be, “Yes, we are going to meet. I advised Mr. Suzuki that I was still working on my agenda to spare time to see you.”, Mary will meet Ms Tanaka.

To Mary’s surprise, Ms Tanaka’s reply was beyond her imagination.

“Thanks, Mary-san.

I hope you enjoy Japanese spring and syabu-syabu!!

Best regards, Tanaka (Ms)”

Mary has finally interpreted that Ms Tanaka wanted to say “No”, without saying “No”.

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