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  • Writer's pictureFrancis Fung

Japanese meetings - silence does NOT mean no questions



In today's globalised world, cross-cultural communication is more important than ever in business, especially when working with Japan.

When conducting meetings with Japanese members, it's crucial to understand the nuances and etiquettes that may differ from your own culture.


One common misconception is that no interruptions during a meeting means there are no questions or concerns. In this post, we will explore the importance of effective communication in meetings with Japanese members, emphasising the significance of longer pauses, active encouragement, and cultural sensitivity.


Understanding Japanese Cultural Differences


Japanese culture places a high value on politeness, harmony, and avoiding direct confrontation. This applies to business too, and in meetings, this often translates into a preference for quieter communication styles. It's essential to recognize that just because no one has interrupted you doesn't mean there are no questions or uncertainties. Japanese participants may be formulating their thoughts, searching for the right words, or seeking to maintain group harmony. You also need to keep in mind that you may be speaking in English and it may take time for other attendees to understand and formulate thoughts and responses in English.


The Illusion of Silence equals Agreement


One common pitfall in meetings with Japanese members is misinterpreting silence as agreement or comprehension. After all, "no one interrupted or disagreed, which means everyone is aligned and on the same page, right?". This is definitely not the case. It's crucial to remember that silence can carry various meanings in Japanese culture. These may include indicating respect for the speaker, and waiting for the speaker to finish before asking a question. It may also signal a lack of understanding, but with the attendee not wanting to break your flow or stop the meeting to clarify. To bridge this gap or ensure alignment, it's essential to actively invite questions and feedback.


The Power of Longer Pauses


One effective strategy when conducting meetings with Japanese members is to incorporate longer pauses into your presentation. These pauses provide individuals with the time they need to formulate questions or responses, especially as we mentioned that there may be language barrier issues. For non native English speakers, they may require time to catch up, distill the key points being shared and also time to formulate, translate and give a response. While these pauses may seem uncomfortable at first, these silent moments are critical and can foster more meaningful and productive discussions. It's so much more valuable than steam rolling onwards just to avoid silent periods.


Actively Encourage Participation and Questions


Creating an environment where participants feel comfortable expressing themselves is paramount. Even before the meeting starts, set this expectation. That there will be pauses. That anybody can and should be instances to ask questions, or that there will be frequent checks to ask if everyone is aligned. Instead of assuming there are no questions if there are no interruptions, actively invite feedback and questions throughout the meeting. For example, you can say, "What are everyone's thoughts on this" or "Can I check we're all aligned by summarising the key points again?"

Do not be fearful of repeating yourself for the benefit of everyone's comprehension. This doesn't have to take too much time, or repeating everything all over again. Just taking the time to reinforce the key points, in a simple way, and giving everyone a chance again to either clarify, expand or agree, before moving on.


Don't Forget That Cultural Sensitivity Matters


Cultural sensitivity is key when working with a diverse group of individuals. Understanding and respecting the cultural norms and communication styles of your Japanese counterparts can help build trust and strengthen relationships. Take the time to observe and learn about Japanese customs, from the basics of lining up to exchange business cards, to the use of honorific language, how people talk to one another, how much silence is required by which members. All for the purpose of creating a positive, respectful and constructive atmosphere in Japanese meetings. As cliched as it is, what has always worked for you in the past may not always work in different situations in Japan.


The Conclusion?


Meetings with Japanese members can be incredibly rewarding, but they require a nuanced approach to communication. Remember that no interruptions do not necessarily indicate comprehension or agreement. By actively encouraging participation, incorporating longer pauses, and embracing cultural sensitivity, you can enhance the effectiveness of your meetings and build stronger relationships with your Japanese colleagues. After the meetings, always try to share your experiences internally, as a team, and continue learning from one another to improve cross-cultural communication when working in Japan.


Am sure these points above are not the only ones?


Any other key points to remember? Feel free to comment and share.

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