Whenever I run training sessions for mixed groups of Japanese and European managers, it is always fun to observe the nationalities of the participants who arrive first and of the people who arrive last. In a seminar last week, the Norwegian participant was precisely five minutes early. The last to arrive (more than an hour late) was a Frenchman, originally from the south of France. In Europe, it is reliably the case that the further south you travel, the more people have a ‘flexible’ view of time.
When I later picked up on this with the Norwegian participant, he looked worried for an instant and said “I was only five minutes early”. This attitude strikes me as very similar to the Japanese approach, which is to be early for appointments, but only by five minutes. Any earlier than that would inconvenience the other person. I have been in coffee shops in Japan, near clients’ offices, and realised that other salespeople, like me, who had arrived too early, were killing time with a quick cup of coffee. I realised this because at about ten minutes to the hour, we would all rush to the till to pay and go.
This behaviour seems to be in direct contradiction to Japanese schedule-keeping patterns when it comes to internal meetings, however. Unless there is a senior executive at one of these meetings, Japanese employees are frequently late. This also holds true, regrettably for me, for training sessions. If there is a senior person is coming, the five minute rule applies. I have even seen junior employees peer through the window, see that a senior person has already arrived, and run away rather than be late.
It would seem that when the meeting is of peers and is ‘in-group’, Japanese people revert to a more relaxed view of time. Not only are they frequently late, but they will answer e-mails via their laptops in the meeting, keep their mobile phones switched on to take calls and be hauled out of the meeting to talk to someone else, sometimes not returning for half an hour or more.
My explanation of this is that when it is an internal meeting, a Japanese worker does not feel the meeting excludes or has priority over all the other relationships that he or she is having to attend to at the time.
While this kind of behaviour drives North Europeans crazy, I also had a Japanese expatriate manager complain to me about the behaviour of a German purchasing manager he went to visit. Apparently the German left his mobile phone on, without even muting the ringtone, all the way through the meeting. Every time the phone rang, the German purchasing manager would look at who was calling, then put the phone back down and let it ring until it switched to voice mail.
I have talked to various Europeans, including Germans, about this, and have come to the conclusion that, for once, there is no national cultural tendency behind this behaviour, it is merely a customer playing status and power games with a supplier!
This article by Pernille Rudlin originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly. This and other articles are available as an e-book “Omoiyari: 6 Steps to Getting it Right with Japanese Customers”
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