The following dialogue between Tadaharu Iizuka, Managing Director of Centre People, a recruitment consultancy and Pernille Rudlin, European Representative of Japan Intercultural Consulting appeared in Journey (a weekly magazine for the Japanese community in the UK) on 1st September 2005.
Iizuka: A while ago there was a TV commercial for a British bank which I found very amusing. It showed a British businessman and a Japanese businessman meeting for the first time, and both sides were very nervous. The Japanese man extended his right hand to shake hands and at the same time the British man took a very deep bow. Then they reversed and did the opposite and again missed each other. You really felt that East and West will never meet.
Rudlin: Even though that was a TV ad, it is something that you can imagine happening for real. I have a similar story which I will tell in a moment, but it is certainly true that as an intercultural consultant I am almost always asked by people if they should bow when they meet Japanese people for the first time.
Iizuka: Is it a question concerning how they should bow?
Rudlin: Sometimes they ask that, but actually it is often about whether it is OK to shake hands or whether they should follow Japanese customs. They seem to be quite apprehensive about it. The commercial you mentioned may only be adding to the confusion. In reality, most Japanese business people know Western customs very well and practice them. Because of this, I usually advise that when you first meet someone, a handshake is OK.
Iizuka: When a Japanese business person visits the UK and meets British people for the first time, or the other way round, it is a case of “East meets West”, so you could imagine there would be a lot of tension. There is another point regarding handshakes which I would like to bring up. I visited a client with a British female colleague and there was confusion as to who should offer to shake hands first. My colleague was holding back and did not offer her hand. Then the Japanese manager we were visiting also hesitated, so we did not manage a proper exchange of greetings. Afterwards I said to her it might have been best if she had offered to shake hands first.
Rudlin: This kind of thing happens quite often. I expect in that situation you bowed in the Japanese style, so it was rather difficult for your colleague and the Japanese manager to switch to shaking hands immediately afterwards. I have also heard in connection with this that older Japanese people were taught that it is rude for a man to offer to shake a woman’s hand. This may have been true a long time ago but now men and women are meeting as equals, so it is best to be proactive in offering to shake hands when you meet.
Iizuka: You mentioned earlier an anecdote regarding a misunderstanding over a handshake – could you elaborate further?
Rudlin: This happened to an acquaintance of mine working at a Japanese company in the UK. A newly arrived manager from Japan was ‘doing the rounds’ to introduce himself to the staff and my acquaintance put out his hand in order to shake hands, at the same time the Japanese manager bowed. Unfortunately this resulted in him poking the Japanese manager in the eye. It was rather similar to the commercial we talked about earlier I suppose. Fortunately the Japanese manager decided to make a joke of it, and took to covering his eye in mock alarm every time they met in the corridor, much to the English person’s amusement. So there was a silver lining to that particular cloud.
Iizuka: When we talk about greetings, for Japanese people in Europe it’s not just a worry about shaking hands but also about embraces and the brushing of cheeks. In our hearts maybe we think it is a good way of showing feelings of friendship. But as Japanese we do feel some resistance, and it is difficult for us to do these things naturally.
Rudlin: I think the British and the Japanese have similar interpersonal space needs. The British also like to keep a bit of distance when they are meeting someone. Sometimes you can see at parties where there are two people talking to each other and one has a smaller need for interpersonal space, that they end up moving across the room, because one is moving closer to the other, and the other keeps moving back in order to keep a distance that is comfortable to them. No doubt both Japanese and British children stay physically close to their family and familiar people, but it does seem that as they reach adulthood, expected behaviours change. For the British, it is OK to continue to show physical affection to people you are close to, but Japanese adults keep a distance even with their own families.
Iizuka: It is true that Japanese children are if anything physically closer to their families than the British. Even now there are some families where the parents and children all sleep together in a row of futons on the floor. Whereas in the UK children are usually put in a separate room from quite early on, and brought up to be independent. It seems that the way one physically interacts with others changes quite radically at some point in one’s upbringing.
Rudlin: I expect that younger Japanese people will begin to show their feelings more openly. Not because they are becoming more ‘Western’ but as a natural consequence of wanting to show their feelings directly, they will move from a handshake to an embrace, particularly amongst family.
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