In the English language an expression you often hear is the “elephant in the room”. This of course refers to an obvious major problem or issue that people avoid discussing or acknowledging.
In the context of cross-cultural communication between Japan and Europe such an elephant also can be found. It is the usage of language itself. Even though English is being used as a shared business and working language this very often results in misunderstandings. Here is a typical complaint raised by non-Japanese employees: “Often after talking to my Japanese colleagues and explaining something to them I get another mail with exactly the same question. Instead of saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ why don’t they tell me right away when they don’t understand.”
This seemingly illogical behaviour can be explained by looking at the role of the listener which strongly differs in the Japanese and English language.
A very famous Japanese saying goes like this: “hear 1 – understand 10”. If this rule on how to conduct a pleasant conversation is followed, it soon becomes apparent that things do not work the same as in English. It is up to the listener to infer the remaining “9” of information from the “1” received. So it is not the speaker that is bearing the main responsibility of whether the information is conveyed as intended but in fact it is the listener.
In Japan it is very impolite to interrupt the speaker even if you cannot follow what has been said. It is only permitted to ask in order to clarify if the speaker gives a verbal cue like “any questions?” or “is everything clear?”.
The challenge for non-Japanese is that most native speakers of Japanese of course adhere to that basic rule even when using English.
So what can we do to spot the “elephant” right away?
Always pay very close attention to non-verbal signals listener might give and make sure to repeatedly ask whether you have been understood. This way you provide an opening for your Japanese counterpart so they are allowed to signal that they were not able to follow.
Sociological models often describe culture as an iceberg that consists of 2 parts, a visible one over the surface and an invisible one below the water line.
When we first come into contact with another culture we are only able to perceive the visible part of the culture when we try to interpret their actions and behaviour. Things like facial/verbal expression or body language are easily accessible to our senses and are the first things we pick up. This can be problematic as we tend to use our own values and presumptions as a reference to determine whether we approve of the things members of the other culture do and say or whether we judge them as acting “strangely”, “illogically” or even “impolitely”.
To put it bluntly, one man’s “yes” might be another man’s “no”.
As we work in an international environment we should therefore try to learn as much as possible about the things below the surface in order to be capable to interpret actions and language based on the other culture’s values and attitudes. This approach goes a long way as we aim to improve mutual understanding and trust.