It is said that the Japanese works in a group. What does that mean to you? There is always a risk to take a simple statement on one culture such as this word by word. The statement could help you if you interpret it in each case you may encounter. A simple statement may not help if you interpret it in your own cultural context alone. Nancy recently had an experience to understand what “the Japanese works in a group” could mean to her.
Nancy works for a large travel agency in Switzerland. She is in charge of business travels of large accounts. Her company has travel, and event & entertainment logistic departments. Nancy belongs to the travel department.
One day, she asked me, “Yoshiko, why does my Japanese customer always put me in copy of his messages for the subject which I’m not involved in? I know him well as I take care of his business travels, but this is too much. ” “What happened, Nancy?” “He asked me a few months ago if my company could organise an important event for his company. I introduced my colleague, Ingrid, who works for the event & entertainment department. Mr. Suzuki, my customer, and Ingrid started discussion on the event. That is fine. My problem is that he always puts me in copy of his e-mails! I don’t need to be informed on the ongoing discussions. It’s Ingrid who is in charge of the event logistics, not me. I can’t help him.”
I’d understand why Mr. Suzuki always puts Nancy in copy. He trusts Nancy as she has been helpful for him, whereas Ingrid is new to him. He most probably thinks that Nancy should be in the communication loop on his discussions with Ingrid. In his eyes, Nancy introduced Ingrid to him. Therefore if he gets some problem in organizing the event logistics, he’d ask Nancy to help.
Mr. Suzuki’s behavior is popular in Japan. People share tasks in the workplace in Japan. Each person has his/her assignment but the boundaries of responsibilities are not always clear-cut. People work by sharing responsibilities. The decision-making is largely based on consensus, rather than on decision by one person who is delegated some levels of responsibility. Under such circumstances, it is not unusual that four or five or even more people are in copy of e-mails exchanged on one subject. If someone is missed out from the loop, he/she would be upset. People are comfortable to be kept in copy, even though the subject matter may be only marginally relevant to them.
In such a work culture, it is safe to keep all the people informed, even some may only be remotely involved. For Nancy, it is on the contrary. Boundaries of responsibilities are clear in Europe, or at least clearer than Japan. In her eyes, the event support for Mr. Suzuki is solely under responsibility of Ingrid. Nancy does not need to know what’s going on with it or can’t help Mr. Suzuki in her position.
That said, Nancy’s emotional intelligence tells her that Mr. Suzuki wants to keep her in copy. “It’s OK”, she thought. She just let the e-mail exchange going without stepping in the discussion.
A few months later, Nancy went to the airport to see-off Mr. Suzuki, who was leaving Switzerland to assume a new position back in Tokyo. Being a travel agent, Nancy usually doesn’t do the same for other customers. When I asked why she did it, Nancy said, “When Mr. Suzuki had advised me that he was going back to Japan, I read his mind. He wanted me to say ‘Thank you and good bye’ at the airport. He was a good customer, so I thought it’s OK, I’ll do. ” Nancy well assessed her customer’s mind-set! Assessing what’s in other person’s mind is very important in communication with the Japanese.