I’ve recently been involved in a large number of video conference calls and have had to revise my opinion of their effectiveness, in a positive sense, thanks to the technological improvements of recent years. But when it comes to communicating with Japanese counterparts, video conferencing is still no replacement for face-to-face meetings.
The issues involved in remote communication with what are known as “high context” cultures like Japan are well documented. People from such cultures prefer communication that relies on nonverbal cues such as body language, silences and voice tones. People from low context cultures (the US, Germany and Australia, for example) prefer explicit verbal communication.
It would seem, then, that video conferencing is the next best thing to meeting a high-context person face to face, and certainly preferable to e-mail and phone calls. My impression so far is that it can work, but mostly for regular, formal group meetings.
Even then though, there are some problems. Firstly the native English speakers don’t realise that the way they are speaking – conversational, lots of “witty” asides and sentences which tail off – is alienating the group at the other end. All the classic Japanese group meeting behaviours start to emerge – eyes shut, furrowed brows or side conversations to clarify comprehension and intention.
The solution to this is to speak “international” English – clear short sentences, lots of clarifying and comprehension checking statements and questions and use of visible agendas, notes and slideware.
Still, differing expectations about the functions of meetings can affect the outcomes of a video conference. In Japan, decisions are reached outside of formal meetings. A person wanting to make a proposal will talk informally to all possible people affected, and maybe send around a proposal which will be marked as approved by all the different teams concerned. A meeting might then be called, but it will be for rubber stamping purposes, to report back or to draw up action points. In western cultures, however, meetings are seen as the chance to brainstorm or resolve differences.
Finally, there is one vital piece of communication that video conferencing cannot enable – “informal contact.” In Japan much of the negotiating and trust building is done outside formal meetings – in pubs, karaoke bars and restaurants. It’s the infamous honne and tatemae problem – there is the official opinion, which will be expressed in group meetings but to know the real story, you have to be out of the office, talking one to one, or amongst a select few.
Face to face continues to be necessary from time to time, not just in the first phase of virtual team building. I’ve had plenty of beers and trust building with Japanese colleagues over the years, but when speaking one to one on the phone, in Japanese, they sometimes cannot be straight with me. The reason for this is not profound – open plan offices are the norm in Japan, so everyone can hear what you say.
This article originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly
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