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A monthly column from the Asia Pacific Management Forum

Review focus: Negotiations, discussions, Westerners, conditioning, Japanese negotiators, "mohkusatsu", homogeneity culture,

Boye Lafayette de Mente's Asian Business Code WordsBoye Lafayette de Mente is one of our regular monthly columnists at the Asian Business Strategy & Street Intelligence Ezine. A noted author with over 30 years of experience in China, Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, Boye's tips on doing business in the region are both pragmatic and enlightening. Some material is taken from Boye's many books exploring Asian cultural and business Code Words, business etiquette, customs, and language.

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Mokusatsu (Mohkuu-sahtsuu)March 2000

Killing with silence

Foreign diplomats, politicians and businessmen dealing with Japan regularly find themselves in situations where their wisdom and foreign experience fails them, and they do not know what to do.

These occurrences almost always result in the rapid buildup of stress and frustrations that often make the situation worse, with the foreign side typically over-reacting and making mistakes.

One of the main causes of these frustrating experiences derives from differences in how Westerners and the Japanese have been conditioned to view and use time; and in culturally induced modes of communication.

Many Westerners, particularly Americans, have been conditioned to view time as something like a train speeding down a straight tract. The train never slows down or stops, and they have a compulsive, deep-seated need to be on it, moving toward specific goals.

Japanese, on the other hand, have traditionally viewed the time track as a circle, with the train moving slowly and repeatedly passing the same place over a period of time. Slow movement, and sometimes getting off the train altogether, has not filled the Japanese with a dreadful sense of wasting time.

Many of the arts of Japan also incorporated the concept of slowing time or stopping it altogether; of capturing the essence of life in a timeless evocation of nature through poetry, through meditation; or in contemplating art or handicrafts that were refined down to their essence and were therefore timeless.

One of the most common and important time factors in Japanese negotiations or discussions about serious matters was - and still is - the use of time gaps or breaks. Their people involved simply stop talking. They may just sit and remain silent (often with their eyes closed), get up and leave the room for short periods, or hold low-voiced side conversations with their colleagues.

Japanese negotiators and others develop varying degrees of skill in using these time gaps to their own advantage - so much so that there is a special term used in reference to the process: mokusatsu (mohkuu-sahtsuu), which means "killing with silence".

Mokusatsu refers to the idea of "killing" the other party's case or proposition by letting it die in the vacuum of silence.

Americans and other aggressive types are especially susceptible to being tripped up by time gaps because they have been conditioned to abhor vacuums - to jump into any gap in a conditioned reflex to keep the dialogue from lagging or stopping.

Too often the foreign side presumes that the Japanese do not understand the points that were made, or that they have not yet accepted the reasoning of the foreign side and need more convincing.

This presumption regularly leads to hurried repetitions and frequently to on-the-spot revisions or compromises that favor the Japanese.

The proper defense for a mokusatsu ploy is simple. Just do as the Japanese do - rest and think, make use of the break to refer to notes, hold private discussions with your own colleagues, and so on. It also pays to introduce your own time gaps, and have control of the ball.

Japanese have traditionally had another advantage over Westerners when it comes to negotiations. The homogeneity of their culture made it possible for them to understand each other to a remarkable degree without the use of words. Generally speaking, they have been so conditioned to think and behave alike that they can, still today, anticipate each other's attitudes and behavior, making it possible for them to leave many things unsaid.

This month's column is excerpted from Japan's Cultural Code Words, by Boye Lafayette De Mente available from NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company

© Boye Lafayette De Mente & the Asia Pacific Management Forum 1999

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