Japanese value “wa” (harmony), so the way of thinking called “kenson” (modesty) or “kenkyo” (humility), is one of their most important virtues.
It means that they think they should always put themselves in low positions, and deprecate themselves while honoring the other person when communicating.
When managerial-level foreigners have interviews to hire Japanese employees, they can be bewildered. When they ask, “What sorts of things do you want to do at this company?” most Japanese people answer, “I’ll do anything. I’ll be a real go-getter.”
From the point of view of foreigners, who want them to be specific and sell their strong points, this type of answer is bewildering, and they say, “But what is it that you can do?”
The Japanese person says that her attitude is to humbly learn anything she can from the company, so when her idea is rejected, she is disappointed. The Japanese person and the foreigner never get on the same wavelength, and the interview is over.
When you are trying to make the foreigner, whose culture is different from yours, aware of your ability based on the Japanese idea of modesty and honoring the other person being a virtue, there are unexpected traps you may fall into.
Even worse than saying “I’ll do anything” is being humble by using expressions such as “I’m still inexperienced” or “I don’t know anything.”
At times such as hiring interviews, if a person uses this sort of expression with Westerners, they won’t think he or she is being humble. They’ll take the Japanese person’s words at face value.
They will misunderstand the Japanese person and think “If you can’t do the job, you shouldn’t have gone to the bother of coming to the interview. This is a waste of my time.”
This sort of thing happens surprisingly often. Basically, foreigners see Japanese expressions and gestures as vague and Japanese people seem hesitant, so if the Japanese person adds some modest expression, if the other person is Japanese, the attitude will be well looked upon, but it will have the opposite effect abroad.
There is a proverb that “the skilled hawk hides its talons”. However, in an environment with various cultures, it might be good to show how sharp your talons are sometimes.
One of the best examples of Japanese modesty is when they tell others about their families. No matter how wonderful they think their children and spouse are, most Japanese people don’t tell others about it directly, and other Japanese don’t expect them to either.
Rather, when they talk about their own children, Japanese people modestly say things like “She doesn’t know anything at all yet, and I’m terribly ashamed of her”. Sometimes, they even talk about their beloved brides with expressions like “my stupid wife.”
This value system with a discrepancy between what they think and what they say is called “kenson” (modesty) . Westerners don’t understand this system. If you say things like “my stupid wife,” it will sound quite rude, and it will make the other person feel sorry for your wife.
We can see a gap here between cultures in which it is good to tell your thoughts to the other person directly, and the Japanese idea that rather than expressing your thoughts directly, it’s good manners to change your words to suit the situation.
🔴 Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.