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Just Tell Me What You Want Me To Do! Working for a Japanese Boss

"So, could you clarify for me what the corporate plan is?" -- Answer: "It's not so clear right now, but we need to take the initiative to do something meaningful, even if things are vague."

"What exactly is it that you want me to do?" -- Answer: "You should be able to see for yourself what needs to be done."

These two questions might typically be heard in the U.S. or other explicit cultures where clarity and verbal direction are essential. The two answers could come from Japanese or people from other cultures where communication is often implicit and people are more comfortable with ambiguity.

For people who represent these two examples to avoid frustration when working together, they need both insight and alignment. They need insight into each others' perspectives and communication styles. Then they need to align these to find a workable middle ground - either doing things one way or the other, or creating a hybrid.

Let's take the case of a Japanese superior and an American subordinate. The Japanese wants more and different data, and analysis from other angles.

Why? Because for Japanese the additional information is necessary to see the big picture and how the issue at hand fits in relation to the overall scheme. From that the larger, more general, contextual understanding, details make more sense. In the process, the additional information may reveal different conclusions, a longer-term trend, or some hidden intelligence that gives the company the upper hand over the competition.

The American, on the other hand, wants clarification and explanations on what other kind of data is required.

Why? Because in the task-oriented U.S. culture, it is assumed that you wouldn't want someone to waste time researching unnecessary information and, therefore, it's assumed that actions should follow clear and specific directions. From the specific information a larger picture may be constructed, but for Americans, communication of all kinds evolves from the specific to the general, and clarity is considered an important aspect of a good communicator.

In Japan, communication is often less direct, and directions can be vague or implicit. Japanese expect people to be able to "read the air" to figure out what they should do. And those who cannot are considered somewhat dense or clueless.

The Japanese thinking style also often diverges from a Western direct, linear approach and toward one that is a more holistic or associative in nature. An old Japanese expression says, "When the wind blows it is good for makers of wooden tubs." The logic goes like this: When the wind blows dust gets in the air. When dust gets in the air it gets in people's eyes and makes them sad. When people are sad, they want to hear the shamisen played. When people want to hear the shamisen, stray cats must be killed to make (gut) strings. When cats are killed the mice multiply. When mice multiply, they eat holes in the wooden tubs that store rice. Therefore, when the wind blows, it's good for the makers of wooden tubs.

This sort of relational logic may prove to be helpful working globally because it can uncover local contextual information that is necessary for working effectively in different countries. On the other hand, when working across cultures and languages, it's very difficult for people to read each others' "air." That air might be permeated with implicit cultural assumptions invisible to others, and explicit communication could alleviate potential frustration and misunderstanding. So here is a great opportunity to use two different styles to leverage the best that each has to offer, making the combination better than either individually.

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Rowland & Associates is a premier cross-cultural consulting firm, providing essential international business skills since 1985. Our passion is bringing intercultural business success through heightened insight and agility. We believe that bold steps with exceptional preparation can create dynamic solutions.

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