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Japanese Business Culture Blog

A blog about communications between Japan and other cultures, particularly in business.



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English in the workplace seems too rude to Japanese ears
Pernille Rudlin
Oct 05, 2013 08:44 AM
Noriyuki Hayashi (a former fund manager with a Columbia Business School MBA) remembers in an article for the Nikkei Online how when he was a General Manager in an Arab country, he had to speak in English with his Japanese subordinate, because there was a non-Japanese speaker in the meeting, and he could not stop himself from thinking his Japanese subordinate was being rude, because using English forced the subordinate to be much more direct when expressing his opinion to Hayashi. He suspects that Japanese subordinates are also worrying about this, with the result that they don't speak out, and find another opportunity, when they can talk one-to-one to each other in Japanese.

He points out that Japan has such a tradition of showing respect to seniors in the way you talk that you can instantly tell on a train who is the more senior of two businesspeople talking to each other. The English language is very egalitarian however, without all the forms of politeness for verb endings that you find in Japanese.

One solution he puts forward is allocate some time in a meeting for small talk with non-Japanese subordinates, for example asking them the meaning of some English expressions. People everywhere like being helpful, he says, and it will ensure you get to know them as individuals, and realise that they are not deliberately being rude.

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