Body language and facial expressions are a big part of communication, especially if you do not speak the language that well. Or, even if you are an advanced speaker, but have not had that much contact with the locals, you might struggle a little at first and have to rely on gestures and pointing. But how to do it eloquently? Or, at least in a way that does not offend?
Japanese “bow” a lot. But it is a different kind of bowing than the typical universal Asian stereotype portrays. Sadly, details that can actually help the expats adapt are often left out and replaced by Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The most common bow is like a long nod with a stiff neck. You do it during the initial introductions. You use the compact but more energetic version of this when you say your morning greetings at work.
You also use the same bow to express gratitude, but with enthusiasm adjusted to the situation.
You can only see the full forty-five-degree bow on the news when a celebrity has gotten in trouble and is apologizing to the mass. It is not that common, and most modern Japanese think of it as too excessive and unnecessary.
The way to go about bowing has been to bow lower than the person who has seniority or outranks you. For example, lower than the customer or the senior at school. This concept is still used but is slowly falling out of fashion because complicated social lines make it tricky to decide the senior-junior relation. (Imagine dealing with someone senior in age but lower in rank.)
Gestures and Pointing
Same gestures in different cultures can have different meanings. That is why it is better to avoid using the ones original to your culture. Sometimes you need to use the basics like ‘that’, ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘I want to pay’ here is how.
If you want to point at something, try and point with the palm of your hand. As if you would be inviting someone in or offering a seat. Pointing with a finger is considered rude, especially if it’s at people.
Contemporary Japanese draws a lot of inspiration from pop culture. The quiz show format where a circle means correct and an x false applies to Japanese gestures too. You do the x by crossing your forearms or hands with the blades towards the viewer.
To signal yes, you can use the common ok sign.
The large version of the yes and no concept is so useful that you might want to take it back home with you.
Imagine you are a distance away from the person you want to convey the yes or no to, and you don’t want to raise your voice. Lift your arms above your head and cross them for an X(no) or make a circle with your fingertips touching for an O(yes).
If you want to pay, make an x with your index fingers.
Alternatively, you could nod for a yes and shake your head for a no.
Similar to complicated words, there is a lot that can go wrong when using gestures. The difference is that when you make mistakes with spoken Japanese, people are more ready to help you and show understanding. But gestures can sometimes add to the confusion, and at worst, make you look obnoxious.
If your first experience living in Japan is working for a Japanese company, testing out at work what you saw on TV or learned online might not be the best idea.
Instead, “observe” and “absorb”. And once you have grown to understand the context of a gesture or a facial expression, then give it a go.