A monthly column from the Asia Pacific Management Forum
Review focus: "Foreign executives have often related how they spent hour after hour trying to convey something important to their Japanese counterparts, only to find their efforts wasted."|
Boye Lafayette de Mente is one of our regular monthly columnists at the Asian Business Strategy and 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 Asia are both pragmatic and enlightening. Some material is taken from Boye's many books exploring Asian cultural and business, business etiquette, customs, and language.
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NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company
Asian Business Strategy and Street Intelligence Ezine
Foreign executives have often related how they spent hour after hour trying to convey something important (to them) to their Japanese counterparts, only to find their efforts wasted and the Japanese probably thinking they were blithering idiots. One such American, recently recounting an experience along this line, summed up the crux of the problem very aptly when he described the kind interpreter that is needed when talking or negotiating with Japanese business people. He said,"You need someone who can interpret thinking, not just words."
This same businessman also brought out another facet of Japanese social and business etiquette that often contributes to misunderstandings, friction, and delays in Japanese-Western business relations. In his case, he had as an interpreter a young Japanese who had lived for many years in the United States and was quite fluent in English. Believing that having such a qualified interpreter gave him an opportunity to get all his ideas across to his Japanese counterpart, he spent a number of hours carefully and precisely explaining his whole business philosophy and how he felt that their business could and should be operated.
When he returned to his hotel he was thoroughly satisfied that he had finally penetrated the language barrier. But he congratulated himself too soon. Shortly afterwards he received a phone call from the interpreter who apologized, saying he had not translated most of the foreign businessman's comments because they would have offended the Japanese. The Western businessman's remarks, it seems, mostly critical of the way the Japanese do business.
It is serious breach of etiquette in Japan to criticize someone directly in public, even when the relationship is superior-subordinate; just as it has traditionally been wrong to disagree with people in public or to be right when they are in error.
This social custom often forces intelligent people to appear foolish or stupid or indifferent, but it is an important means of avoiding behavior that others, both in inferior and superior positions, consider insulting. There are historical examples in Japan of people who forfeited their lives by publicly correcting or criticizing someone. Revenge for this type of insult today usually does not involve violence (except sometimes in the case of hoodlums), but it is often vicious in a subtle way. Western business people should be aware of this extraordinary sensitivity of the Japanese and conduct themselves accordingly.
One way of reducing possible friction in this area is for Westerners to explain that besides being unfamiliar with Japanese customs, the policies and practices of their own company, which they cannot arbitrarily change, make it impossible for them to conform completely to the Japanese way. This is something like announcing to the Japanese,"I may insult you but I can't help it, and I apologize beforehand"-reasoning that is readily understood in Japan.
A vital factor in the use of English-speaking Japanese interpreters by foreign executives in Japan is that most of the interpreters are young, often have had little or no business experience themselves, are likely to be inadequately experienced in handling human relations problems (which is always a big part of interpreting), and are almost always called upon to interpret to older, higher ranking Japanese executives.
In their efforts to use the proper level of polite speech to higher ranking individuals, the young, inexperienced interpreters often confuse the meaning of what they are trying to say. They will also habitually water down the foreigner's remarks to avoid upsetting the Japanese side.
Because of such problems, it is usually wiser for foreigners to employ older person as interpreters-even when their English-language proficiency may be less than that of a recent university graduate (who may have studied abroad). The greater social status of the older individual will often more than compensate for a lesser ability in English.
If foreign executives want to further balance the scales in their favor by engaging the services of an older interpreter of recognized social and economic rank, they should explain to the ranking executives that their high status, knowledge, and experience are needed to offset the foreigners' lack of understanding of local customs.
|This month's column is excerpted from Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business, by Boye Lafayette De Mente available from NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company|