Foreign language learning puts a lot of emphasis on the verbal aspects of how to say something. But often, in real life, the non-verbal aspects are not less important, but more important than the language itself. Language and culture are interrelated and being able to communicate effectively in a foreign language means that the speaker knows not only the linguistic aspect of the language, but also how it should be used in context.
In an age where cross-cultural communication occurs frequently, learning about another country’s communication style can be beneficial in many contexts. For example, an administrative staff who is sent to Japan to lead a team of Japanese staff, or a lawyer hired by a Japanese firm to handle the company’s international contracts, or businessmen and women who deal with Japanese, or a professor ESL for Japanese students. Communication, transaction and relationship will be much easier when one has a good understanding of the other culture.
Linguistically, Japanese uses different structures to denote degrees of formality and social hierarchy. A very formal thank you would be doomo arigatoo gozaimasu, a simple thank you would be arigatoo, and an informal thank you would be doomo. Men and women sometimes use different words. It is very important to understand the social hierarchy in a given context in order to decide which structure to use to avoid missteps. The Japanese also treat the use of the second personal pronoun you differently. The Japanese would use a title instead of using you directly, which is more respectful. In many settings, it is also rare to call someone simply by their first name. Office colleagues, for example, would address their colleagues with the title -san after their last name. Team members would address their manager as kacho and the head of the company as syacho. And for people belonging to certain occupations, such as a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer, they will be called sensei. Very important people should be addressed with the title -sama after their last name, which includes clients (o-kyaku-sama).
It is a norm to show emotional sensitivity towards others and to protect one’s own emotional expressions. This makes the Japanese sometimes appear expressionless to people from other cultures and creates frustration because it makes it difficult to read their facial expressions. Because Japanese speakers have been trained to be emphatic about the feelings of others, it is difficult for them to directly say no to reject someone. Sometimes the Japanese would say yes to avoid upsetting the other person. To avoid confusion, foreigners must be able to recognize signs that mean no. The Japanese are also reluctant to receive compliments. This is because society values group spirit and standing out as an individual is socially awkward. Therefore, when a Japanese is complimented, he responds humbly, such as iie (which literally means no), showing that it is no big deal and not worth mentioning. This modesty is known as enryo. Sometimes when talking to foreigners, Japanese people still indulge in this practice and risk sounding lacking in self-confidence.
Using Edward T. Hall’s concept, Japanese would be classified as a high-context culture, a communication style influenced by close human relationships, a well-structured social hierarchy, and strong behavioral norms. Communication is “indirect, ambiguous, harmonious, reserved and discreet”. Speakers are rarely interrupted. The inner meaning is embedded and the listener is expected to be able to read between the lines. Such a practice renders machine translation of limited value. There is tatemae, an explicit individual statement, and then there is honor, what an individual is actually going to do. When a Kyoto native asks if a guest wants to eat bubuzuke (rice in green tea broth), what they really mean is that the guest is being politely asked to leave.
Using Lewis’s cultural categories of communication, the Japanese are classified as reactive or “listening cultures”. Reagents are “courteous, seemingly friendly, accommodating, engaged, and good listeners.” This is in contrast to multi-actives who are impulsive and emotional, often interrupting and uncomfortable with silence.
When comparing Japanese culture and Australian and American cultures using Hofstede’s 6D model, the biggest difference is the long-term orientation dimension where Japan scores a high 88 while Australia and the United States score a low 21 and 26 respectively. The second largest difference is the dimension of individualism, where Japan scores a low of 46, while Australia and the United States score high of 90 and 91, respectively. What this implies when a Japanese company is working with a foreign partner is that it will weigh the factor of the long-term relationship more than the benefit itself, which is quite in contrast to American culture. The Japanese also adopt a group decision-making process known as ringi. The process starts from the bottom and gradually works its way to the top. Consensus must be reached from the group level. Since the decision-making process must go through a group, the process will take some time. One American executive commented: ‘It takes the Japanese five years to make a decision, but they implement it overnight. We made the decision overnight, then spent five years implementing it.’
A notable feature of the Japanese communication style is the use of prolonged silence during a dialogue. Since the Japanese do not like arguments, in order to maintain social harmony and prevent the other party from losing face, they prefer to remain silent in order to show a negative response. Prolonged silence could make the non-Japanese interlocutor feel uncomfortable. A study by John L. Graham shows that periods of silence occur more frequently in Japanese negotiations than in any other culture, one of up to 40 seconds, and can be used as an effective negotiating tactic. The Japanese do not like the use of verbal aggression and silence is used in a strong position as an aggressive and persuasive tactic. However, this gesture could easily be misconstrued as a sign of weakness and acceptance. Care must be taken when generalizing the communication style of the Japanese. Japanese people who have lived in the United States, for example, would adapt to the American style of communication.
The Japanese value sincerity. Therefore, attempts by foreigners to master Japanese are seen as eager to establish mutual trust and close working relationships. According to INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, there are two ways to build trust, cognitive versus affective. Cognitive confidence is task-based. Affective trust is based on relationship and gradually develops through friendship. American culture is an example of cognitive trust culture, Japanese culture, on the other hand, is an example of affective trust culture. Therefore, it is important to socialize with Japanese people outside office hours, show interest in their personal lives and exchange gifts.