Over the years, I have witnessed any number of meet-and-greets between Japanese managers and foreign visitors; they’re typically quite nervy affairs at first, with both sides desperately trying to accommodate and respect the other’s business cultural practices. Of course, such discomforts are quite short-lived, business gets done, and then everyone can negotiate the inevitable evening meal and drinks and the new set of cultural differences that entails.
By contrast, and assuming there are no bitter enmities involved, meetings between wholly Japanese company representatives seem to move along remarkably smoothly. They aren’t relaxed exactly… there’s little casualness evident in Japanese business practices… but they do follow a time-honoured format or set of rigid protocols. As with most ritualised routines, this allows people to approach their business with each other from a position of mutual respect, which is always a good way to foster understanding and put people at ease.
Anyone who lives and works in Japan will soon develop an understanding of this most fundamental part of Japanese life. At first, you’ll learn it by observation, then pretty soon it becomes second nature to know how deeply or deferentially you should bow in any situation. But the bow is much more than an equivalent to the Western handshake.
Some bows are more like a cursory nod, such as when thanking a shop assistant or waitress, a motorist who stops to let you cross the road, or someone of lower or equal status to oneself, like a high schooler or a colleague. Other bows are deeper, more respectful; reserved for those of a higher status or who’ve gone out of their way on your behalf. Bosses and visitors, priests, a helpful immigration officer, or even a waitress you accidentally tripped up – all are deserving of a more deferential bow.
And, in case you were wondering, women bow too, though they keep their hands together at the front, palms flat, whereas men bow with hands at their sides. So, ladies, “keep your hands on your ha’penny” as my old grandmother used to say – at least you won’t be expected to curtsy!
I’m just scratching the surface here, for there is a complex art to bowing and knowing when and how to bow. Yet the apparent complexity of the art rests on common sense principles that, as I stated, are quickly acquired.
I don’t want to dwell on this subject for it’s already covered in another article on this site about Japanese business language. However, please be aware that the polite form of Japanese, or teineigo (丁寧語), typically taught in Japanese language classes is somewhat limited in a business context. In fact, teineigo is just one aspect of keigo (敬語), or “respectful language.” Much more useful in Japanese business is sonkeigo (尊敬語), also meaning “respectful language” and kenjōgo (謙譲語), or “humble language.”
None of the above forms are particularly hard to acquire on top of one’s basic Japanese learning, and foreign workers are afforded a great deal of linguistic latitude while they are still learning the ropes. However, such latitude is often not extended to Asian workers.
At most business meetings, junior staff will usually not speak up unless directed to do so, certainly not to senior staff from another company. However, junior staff of both sides may engage in quiet, private conversations in some circumstances, though not typically on key issues currently being discussed by their seniors. If in doubt, keep your trap shut and only speak when spoken to!
Business cards are known as meishi (名刺) in Japan, and nowhere is their exchange and significance more formalised or important. For the foreigner coming to work in Japan, this formality may seem disconcerting at first but it actually takes a lot of the uncertainty out of meeting people for the first time, allowing business to flow more smoothly. Whatever the design of your company-provided meishi, its cultural significance is so important that it demands any recipient treats it with great reverence, and I cannot stress this point too strongly. Indeed, the exchange of meishi lies at the heart of the meeting protocols I referred to in my introduction.
A Final Thought
I think you’ll agree that the formalised protocols for meeting people in Japanese business contexts are actually quite simple common sense rules, easily learned by observing your Japanese colleagues. And once it becomes second nature to you, everyone you meet and greet, whether customers, clients or suppliers, will be impressed by your grasp of Japanese business culture and feel more confident in their dealings with you.
By Bill Ambler
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