Why no reply? — Hidden gaps you may not notice, Business communications between Europe and Japan (3)

No reply to e-mails?

“Japanese don’t reply to my e-mail when they don’t have an answer.” said Mary with a sad face.

She suggested to her colleagues in Tokyo some nice places for the next meeting of global project leaders of her company to be held in Switzerland. Mary lives in the country, so she was excited to offer good ideas.

I understand why she was disappointed. She worked hard to find and list places that had a good access from the airport, offered reasonable price and quality for corporate executives. It’s disappointing to hear no echo responding to her willingness to help and engagement for the success of the meeting.

That said, I was not fully convinced.

I said to Mary,  “I understand your feeling, but the same is true for Europeans. “

Mary was not convinced. “Yes, but Japanese do it more often.”

I didn’t argue further, as I agree with Mary, unfortunately.

I understand that the silence of her Japanese colleagues didn’t mean to dislike or ignore her offer. It is rather a cultural reason than a lack of politeness to respond to e-mails.

It was a nice surprise for me to know that one may say, “I don’t know” in Europe. It was one of the first major cultural differences I noticed when I started working here. Knowing that no one gets upset even if I  say, “I don’t know”, it was freedom from fear for me! I’m not obliged to say “Yes” or “No”, but have the third choice to say, “I don’t know”, meaning I really don’t have an answer.

Japanese unconsciously believe, “We must say yes or no”, especially in a formal occasion like business. There is no answer between “Yes” and “No”. Japanese unconsciously think that they must answer to the question straightforwardly. While this way of thinking signals their honesty, it also tend to push them too much. Such spirit is not far from the “Harakiri” mind-set.

On the contrary, being able to say, “I don’t know” allows a buffer in mind. It does not come from lack of responsibility, but it is merely a status of knowledge. There is no value judgement involved in this answer.

If one creates a buffer in dialogue, it will allow another avenue of communication. For example, one could continue; “I don’t know it now, and will ask the project leader when she comes back from her business travel. Could you wait for a week?”

Thus life continues. No need to rush to commit Harakiri.

My solution is to say, “I don’t have an answer”. Being Japanese, I still have a psychological block to say, “I don’t know”. In Japanese mindset,  “I don’t know” sounds rather unkind. If someone says to me “I don’t know”, I’d naturally utter in my mind, “If you don’t know, why don’t you try to find an answer to my question?”.

 “I don’t have an answer” is a way to say “I don’t know” for me, but implies that I am willing to find an answer.

Thus I build a bridge between European and Japanese in myself.

5 thoughts on “Why no reply? — Hidden gaps you may not notice, Business communications between Europe and Japan (3)”

  1. Thanks you for sharing your cross-cultural expertise on this blog. For those of us new to doing business in Japan, it is extremely useful! I have found though, that my Japanese colleagues will reply to an e-mail, even just to say “thank you for sending this e-mail”. I never know whether a response is expected to such an e-mail. Is this a newly learned behavior- to accommodate Western colleagues? Is a response from me expected in return, in a never-ending exchange of “thank yous”? It would be great to get your perspective!

    1. Thank you very much for your interest in my blog post and taking time to share your experience.

      Your Japanese colleague had a very good manner of communication by e-mail. You are lucky to work with such nice people.

      In discussion on culture, nothing is “black or white”. It is understood that there may be some Japanese people who know the importance of keep others informed.

      By this series of blog posts, I wish to go beyond the day-to-day observation to better understand the reasons of what one observes.

      I’ll keep you posted!

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