Japanese people value “wa” (peace, harmony), so they have an extreme dislike for face-to-face confrontations. Moreover, a humble attitude might help, so when there is some kind of trouble, the first thing they do is try to start communicating by apologizing.
On the other hand, when a problem occurs, most Westerners take a firm stance and try to explain things. In addition, most of the time, Westerners search for a way to solve the problem by exchanging their opinions and talking about the matter directly.
In Japan, apologizing doesn’t always indicate taking the next step toward the solution. An apology loosens the situation’s tension and is just a means for preserving harmony with the other person.
For this reason, even if the person apologizes, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything has been resolved in a short time.
If there is an apology, Westerners expect the person to admit his or her error, and then discussions about how to make things better can begin.
The different meanings of apologies can lead to various misunderstandings in business situations.
When Japanese people say their opinions in front of outsiders from other companies at meetings, they have a habit of exchanging looks with their coworkers or superiors while they talk.
This may be a sign that they are confirming things with their coworkers based on what was discussed beforehand and then saying them to the other people.
In Japanese society, in order to preserve harmony, people tend to make decisions as a group and refrain from standing out as individuals by expressing opinions.They are always required to make sure there is consensus within the group.
Westerners place importance on individual performance, and when they see Japanese people acting this way, they mistake it for actions showing that Japanese people are not independent or are lacking in confidence.
In situations such as meetings, when people from the West pepper the Japanese side with a lot of ideas or opinions, it is often the case that the Japanese do things like becoming silent or giving vague answers.
At such times, if Japanese people unconsciously exchange glances, people from the West will misunderstand that they are somehow being excluded.
This type of behavior unfortunately creates feelings of suspicion in others. However, behind it lie cultural differences in common sense regarding decision making and business methods.
Japanese people try to preserve the “wa”, so they tend to not like to stand out. When people try to sell their opinions or show off their abilities, according to an old Japanese proverb, the nail that sticks up is hammered down.
On the other hand, in the West, from the time they are children, people are encouraged to state their opinions clearly and highlight their abilities and special skills. It follows that people who stand out are seen as important.
It can safely be said that the Japanese communication style of moderation and consideration for the other party’s feelings by adjusting things in an unofficial location is the opposite of the Western one.
In Japan, letting the other person know your abilities is perceived negatively as being strongly attention seeking. On the other hand, outside Japan, those who do that sort of thing are usually judged to be people with a strong determination to take on any challenge.
The Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down” is the expression which illustrates such Japanese behaviors most clearly.