Four Ways to Navigate the Silence in Japanese Business Culture

Expat Exec Case Study: Silent Chaos & The Noisy Idiot

Note: This story was taken from an interview with a member of Cranberry’s Expat Executive Network.  Our network members operate on 4 continents and 12 countries (and counting!).  They have lived the mistakes we all want to avoid.  Thanks to our membership for sharing these stories

Moving to Tokyo 12 years ago was about as crazy and disruptive a thing as I had done in my life. One thing I was certain was the fact that I knew my business. I had helped build and grow a business culture in our US affiliate that was being copied all over our corporate structure.  I had high confidence that I could transplant change to make my new assignment glow just like our work in the US had.

But it didn’t happen.  It was perplexing. It was painful…and it led to a full on confidence crisis where I wondered if I was the right person for the job. 

On day one, I approached my team with a fast paced agenda of introductions, descriptions of the impact I wanted us to make and the changes that would make the affiliate shine.   

When I looked around the room I saw blank faces and no real emotion.  Just silence.    

So…of course… I doubled down.  I talked more about “cultural shifts” and “changing the paradigm” and on and on.  

Nothing. 

My finance partner is staring at his notebook.  My marketing guy is looking me right in the eye.  My HR guy is, predictably, looking out the window.  My administrative assistant is smiling obediently. 

What is happening?  Where’s the response?  Where is a glimmer of excitement?  Why is there so much SILENCE? 

Silence. 

Understanding the Why and Why It Matters 

Silence in Japanese culture is a product of necessity.  Japan is a country roughly the size of Montana with about half the population of the United States.  As a rocky, mountainous archipelago the space used for food was prioritized.  Thus the population developed a collectivist mentality that focuses on harmony, care for the wellbeing of others, and respecting each other above all else.  Being pressed together in the bustling streets of Tokyo (metro population: 38 million) or in the more open “smaller” towns of Osaka (2.6 Million), Fukuoka (1.4 million), or Kobe (1.5 million) finds one surrounded by noise.  Trains, announcements, the ubiquitous “ding-dong” doorbell that announces everything from entry into a コンビニ (“conbini” convenience store) to your turn at the doctor’s office, it all becomes white noise that actually provides comfort in the city where you are never alone…yet mostly, in reality, alone. 

This creates the need for social norms that reduce the chaos of so many people living so close together.  Especially in day-to-day life.  Orderly queues.  No car horns unless a terrible disaster is pending.  No yelling.  No children playing loudly.  No cutting line.  No disputes in public.  Only silence and care for others.    

Our family lives almost dead center of that 38million people and you can hear crickets at night.  Never a radio or train horn or argument from those living above us.  Just silence.  It’s not an accident.  It’s the culture.  

Finding Meaning in Your Team’s Silence  

What does this silence have to do with your business and leading your Japanese team?   

Everything.   

The idea that you should interrupt others or blast your personal opinion above others is seen as worse than disrespectful…it’s seen as the “idiot being the idiot.”  Indeed buried in that silence your team could be showing you the ultimate respect by not asking questions, adding their opinion, or high-fiving you.  Or it could be something deeper.  

Finding out what drives the silence in your team is complex and needs consistent observation and lots of feedback.  Feedback is not easy either but that’s for another discussion at another time.  

Let’s take a look at what the silence may mean and what you can do to make sure.  

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence, use it. In fact, expect it.  Revel in it.  Use it to allow the moment to become more concrete and meaningful.  Look into each colleague’s face for a brief moment to punctuate the importance of what you are putting forward.  The Western urge to fill the silence is indeed not usually helpful.  Learn to shut up…at the right time…in the right manner.
  2. Enlist a local communication expert. For so many reasons it’s important for you to have a local “inside person” to help you navigate.  Invite them to meetings, ask them for private feedback, trust them for advice.  This relationship will take some time to develop so make it a priority to find a few folks who will tell you the deeper truths that you cannot see.
  3. Preview topics and possible controversial items with candor before the meeting with a few members of the team.  Ask them how the larger team will react.  Ask them for help in explaining the concept in the native language or to gauge understanding for you.  By showing a few cards before the game, you can walk in confident that you’ll have a few helpers on hand, even if they don’t fully agree with the path forward.
  4. Use a gentle approach if things are still murky at the end. At the end of a meeting, you may decide that it’s just not working well. Resist the urge to roll your eyes, ball up your fists and scream at the language gods “WHY??!”  In addition to gaining valuable “not-an-idiot” points with your composure, the team will feel just a bit more willing to share their thoughts, afterward, when they know that no reaction is coming.  

Remember that the loud guy at any meeting in East Asia is considered the idiot.  This is a truth that is hard for 騒々しい外国人 (noisy foreigners) to figure out.  Authenticity, trust built over time and a few good-intentioned co-conspirators will have your team operating well over time.   

Be patient, be strategically quiet, plan and above all else, don’t be the noisy idiot.

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