Trust, scheduling and decision making – the differences between China and Japan

Three monkeys – Chinese origin to a Japanese saying?

“Japanese people are punctilious about time keeping and the detail of their work, loyal and don’t complain. From a non-Japanese perspective, this conscientiousness, loyalty and perfectionism are something to be respected”. So says Kurasawa Misa in an interview with Erin Meyer, professor at my old business school INSEAD in the Toyo Keizai online.

Meyer has recently published a book based on her 17 years of interviews with business people from around 55 different countries, which condenses her findings into 8 different cultural maps. We have 19 at Japan Intercultural Consulting, and see a lot of similarity in her work with our dimensions and cultural maps, which is comforting.

Kurasawa: Are Japanese people particularly difficult to work with from a Western perspective?

Meyer: Certainly Westerners find it challenging to do business with Japanese people. One reason is that Japanese people are not very emotionally expressive. Also they are not particularly troubled by silence or vagueness. You often hear that when Westerners give a presentation to a Japanese company, it ends in puzzlement. The Japanese audience sits quietly with no response or eye contact. This is confusing for Westerners.

I have had similar experiences. I have asked at the end of a presentation if there are any questions and no one raised their hands, so I went back to my seat. Then a Japanese colleague said to me “Erin, there was a person who wanted to ask a question. Do you mind if I find out?” So he stood up and said “Professor Meyer’s lecture has ended, but are there any questions?” No one raised their hand, so he looked across the audience and then asked one particular audience member – “I think you have a question?” and indeed that person asked a particularly important question. Then, in the same way, various other questions were asked. Afterwards I asked him how he knew which people wanted to ask questions and he said “their eyes were shining”.

I thought I should try this so asked his advice. He said “Japanese people do not make as much eye contact as Americans. So when you ask if there are any questions, most people don’t look at you but look elsewhere. But amongst the audience were people who were looking at you steadily. Those people probably have shining eyes.”

Sure enough, the next time I made a presentation I saw one woman was watching me the whole time, and when I asked if she had a question, she nodded.

Kurasawa: That’s a very ‘Japanese’ way of expressing intention isn’t it?

Meyer: Japanese people send messages in all kinds of ways, and this is the Japanese communication style. If you are not aware of it, you cannot do business in Japan. It will just end with “they don’t talk, they don’t ask questions.” You have to make the effort.

On the other hand, when Japanese people work in a different culture, they have to realise that not raising their hands to ask a question will be interpreted as a lack of passion, or that a message did not get through, or that the Japanese person just doesn’t care.

Kurasawa: In your book, Chinese people are often relatively close to Japanese in the positioning. Yet to Japanese people, there are big differences in the Chinese national culture and way of doing business?

It’s true that when you look at the culture maps, Japan and China are very close. Both have hierarchical organisations, both do not say directly what they mean but still manage to communicate their intentions. However if you directly compare China and Japan you can see some big differences.

For example, I visited China a few months ago and saw a surprisingly big difference in attitudes to planning between Japan and China. Japanese are very punctual and plan everything down to the last minute. On the other hand, in China there are regular changes to schedules. The timing and location of the seminar will keep changing right down to the last minute and the speakers and the participants will also keep changing. However it all works out in the end. Chinese people are very flexible about change.

So it is a very different experience for Americans visiting Asia when it comes to Japan and China. With Japan the scheduling starts months in advance right down to where the dinner will be held. My most recent seminar there started at 10:03 and even then someone said “this is later than planned”! I was very surprised. When you have this kind of experience, you cannot really say “Asian” meaning Japanese and Chinese together.

Kurasawa: So what should Japanese people bear in mind if they are doing business with Chinese or Korean people?

Meyer: If you look at the culture maps, there are three areas in which China and Korea are different from Japan. For example in decision making Japan is one of the countries of the world which most values consensus, whereas in Korea and China there are strong top down tendencies. So in Japan decision taking takes a long time but the decision is almost always executed as planned. Whereas in Korea and particularly in China, not much time is taken to make a decision, but it often changes.

So Japanese people in China often feel unhappy that they are not involved in a decision and that Chinese business-people are not very “professional”. This is not the case, but Chinese people feel that they want to get their products to the market faster than anyone else so prize speed and flexibility.

The second area is around scheduling. Japanese people are very precise about timing and want everything to go according to the plan. Chinese and Korean people are much more flexible about time.

Attitudes towards trust also vary. For Japanese people, the basis of trust is a high quality of work and products, to be on time. For China and Korea, emotional ties are the guarantee of trust.

Kurasawa: So even when countries are geographically close, there are some important differences?

Meyer: That’s the key point. From previous research into diplomats, I saw a surprising result – the highest failure rate in being posted overseas – in terms of not becoming accustomed to the culture or lifestyle and returning home early – was among American diplomats posted to the UK.

From an American perspective, you would think it would be much harder to live Japan where the culture is completely different than in the UK where at least you can speak your own language. It seems that if you feel culturally close to a country, you don’t bother to learn the culture so much and are not so flexible and open. Then you start as a result to feel stress from the differences and become depressed.

Japan, China and Korea are the same. For example, when a Japanese person is working with a Korean person, they may not make a positive effort to understand their culture. So when a Korean person behaves in a way that is different to what they were expecting they simply think they are inefficient, and feel stress. If their counterpart was Australian, they would just understand it as a cultural difference and be more open-minded in their reaction.

What is most important in multicultural or bi-cultural environments is the small differences. Above all you need to recognise that your counterpart’s culture is different. If you think that people are the same everywhere you will end up judging everything by your own country’s cultural values.

Kurasawa: It’s important to take steps towards the other culture, but some people feel it’s too much trouble if it’s only you making the effort

Meyer: In order to get the results you want, you have to show you understand the other person’s culture, and adjust your own attitude. I often get asked “should I stick to who I am, or prioritise being flexible?” In other words “should I focus on doing it the Japanese way or totally adjust to the other people I am working with?” For those who want to produce results in a global environment, the answer is you have to do both.

Global leaders have a foot in both camps. They know how to ask questions of Indian colleagues in a way that will get the right answer. They know how to communicate effectively with British people that they work with.

But there are not many executives who make this effort. In future, the leaders of global companies will have to understand deeply the way business is done in each country, and be flexible in the way they approach how they do things.

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