When we published a recent article about the Japanese concept of consensus building, including a consultant’s experience while working in Japan, we received a number of comments from members who discussed their work in Japan and other countries. Some wrote to say they had experienced the consensus-building concept, while others thought that Western tendencies had overtaken the approach that the Japanese call nemawashi, which literally means “root binding.”

One member wrote us about a pattern he’s seen when working with Japanese consultants. He’s wondering if other consultants, American or Japanese, have experienced this communication breakdown, and if so, how they adjust their communication strategy. If you know the answer, or have an experience you’d like to share, send us e-mail.

An American in Japan
American consultant Greg Kirwin, a translator and technical writer with Tokyo Electron America, Inc., travels to Japan three or four times a year. He works with consultants and team members from many countries including Japan, America, India, China, and Romania. He said he’s noticed a pattern that sometimes happens when Japanese and Americans interact.

Having lived in Japan for nine years while teaching business English and technical writing to Japanese engineers, he often passed the time with Japanese coworkers. One morning as he came in to an office in Osaka, he noticed that one of the administrative assistants was wearing a new outfit. Meaning to compliment her, he said, “Did you buy a new dress?” He was surprised when she responded, “But it wasn’t expensive.”

Cultural differences and the use of questions
Based on that and several more experiences, Kirwin said he’s come to some tentative conclusions about the use of questions in American vs. Japanese cultures. Questions can be used in several ways, Kirwin said:

  • To request more information, as in, “What time is it?”
  • To make a suggestion, as in, “Have you tried rebooting the server?”
  • To make an objection, as in, “But isn’t that too expensive?”

He believes that Japanese consultants are more likely to use questions as an objection to what another speaker has said, whereas Americans are more likely to ask questions for any or all of the reasons listed. He’s also noticed that Americans tend to use questions as a way to communicate interest in the speaker and a desire to deepen the level of interaction, trust, or friendship with the speaker.

Communication breakdown
The different ways Americans and Japanese use questions can complicate the communication process in two ways, according to Kirwin.

“First, if a Japanese is making a presentation and the Americans begin to ask many questions, for information or to show interest, the Japanese may begin to feel their idea is being ‘attacked,'” Kirwin said. “Second, if an American is speaking and the Japanese asks a question intending it as an objection, the American may tend to give a quick answer and move on with their point, in a sense ‘riding right over’ the Japanese speaker’s objection.”

Kirwin provided a sample exchange that illustrates these problems:

American: This new project will increase our market penetration…(I want everyone to agree with me quickly.)
Japanese: But do we have enough money to invest in the project at this time? (I would like to have more discussions before rushing in.)
American: Yes, I’ve already looked at the figures and…(OK, I answered that easy question, now we can agree to proceed…)
Japanese: (These guys never listen.)

The question

Kirwin said he’s shared his theory with a few Japanese friends but hasn’t had any strong agreement, or consensus. He’s hoping that TechRepublic members will be able to shed some light on this topic by sharing their experiences. If you have relevant comments or anecdotes, send us e-mail or join the discussion.