"Excuse me!" - When actions speak louder than words
Are you sure you know what your actions are saying?
While it's very important to say the right things, sometimes your actions are more important than what you say. Here are a few actions that you might want to be aware of in Japan!
Personally, I gesture quite a bit, even by western standards. I realize, Japan aside, that this is probably a cultural trait of being from North America, where gesturing is a common, accepted, and even expected part of the conversation.
Not so in Japan, however, where I have been told to "stop flailing my arms" or "you almost slapped me when you were giving that presentation". Part of the reason is that there's much less room to do anything in Japan, which means that you start out in close proximity with your colleagues or clients.
Practically speaking, that means you want to be careful when you're raising your hands - because someone's face might be in the same space.
I used to teach in a small cubicle, with a student sitting right next to me. At first, it was challenging to pull in my actions and I would sometimes see the student lean backward to try and avoid getting hit (unintentionally!) as I was getting excited about the point I was making.
For anyone who's like me and likes to gesture as they speak, I'll give you one trick that really helped me: keep your elbows close to your body!
Your gestures will be limited to your wrists and hands. It might feel a little weird at first, but at least you will limit the risk of turning your workplace into a mixed martial arts studio!
2. Physical contact
It goes without saying that, when I say 'physical contact', I'm not talking about anything that goes on after hours on the dance floor or anything inappropriate.
The only thing I will say about that is that consent matters, always. No, I'm talking about even the most innocent act of physical contact in the business situation: a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, shaking hands, or giving a high five.
To boil it down to a simple rule: don't touch anybody
Again, I don't want to create the impression that Japan is a cold, cold land of emotionless people. Nothing could be further from the case. However, physical contact carries no value in the business environment and could actually hurt your cause.
Your well-meaning hand on the shoulder to encourage a coworker could be misconstrued as the desire to pursue a closer personal relationship, in a country where any public form of affection is unusual, if not frowned upon.
To keep yourself safe from prosecution and to keep your Japanese coworkers feeling comfortable to work with you, it's best to keep your hands to yourself.
Even with the most innocuous of actions, there's always the possibility that you might be making a cultural faux pas.
Once, I was meeting a business client in a hotel lobby. I saw him coming towards me and I walked up to greet him. As I extended my hand (to shake his hand, of course), he launched himself into a bow, smashing his forehead into my karate-chop-shaped hand. Note to self: stick to a wave next time.
Forget not to...
As discussed, there are situations that you don't want to use that much body language. On the other hand, you also don't want to forget certain actions either.
Bowing, for instance, is definitely something worth practicing a couple of times in the mirror before starting your job. If you're anything like me, it's going to feel a bit odd to bow to another person the first couple (dozen) times you do it, but your Japanese counterparts will really appreciate you trying to make an effort.
When in doubt about what Japanese body language to remember to do, the rule of thumb is always to keep your eyes open and observe. I literally got through my first year in Japan - no Japanese school, no translators - by just copying my coworkers.
We'll get into Japanese body language in more detail in another article but for now, that's how I did it. And you can do it too!
Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.
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