One of the most common questions I receive from Americans who work with Japanese is, “Why do Japanese fall asleep in meetings?”
The fact is, when Japanese close their eyes in meetings, most of the time they aren’t actually asleep! Often, closed eyes are a sign that a Japanese person is listening intently. Japanese believe that by closing their eyes, they can hear more effectively, because they are screening out the visual stimulus and focusing only on the sound. Because Japanese find it challenging to listen to English conversations for long stretches of time, they are especially likely to use this technique in meetings with Americans.
Unlike Americans, Japanese don’t have the custom of maintaining eye contact with the person who is talking. So the action of closing one’s eyes, which appears to Americans to be extremely impolite, carries no such negative connotations for Japanese. And typically Japanese are unaware that closing one’s eyes strikes Americans as being rude. Japanese typically don’t realize how disconcerting, or even insulting, this habit can be to Americans.
Once, earlier in my career, I was giving an important speech. While talking, I looked over at a senior Japanese person in attendance, who I was hoping to make a good impression on. His eyes were closed, and his face wore a placid expression. He really looked like he was asleep! Even though intellectually I knew that Japanese often close their eyes when listening to English, on an emotional level I panicked, thinking “Oh no, I’m so boring that this key person is sleeping!” Through the rest of the speech my eyes kept darting over to him, each time to find him with his eyes still closed. However, when the speech was over and it was the time for the question and answer session, his hand was the first one that darted up. He asked a very incisive question, the content of which indicated that he had indeed been listening to my talk very carefully. Phew!
In a meeting type situation, if you see Japanese closing their eyes, it may be an indication that you need to slow down your speech and make sure you are speaking in a way that is not too complicated and doesn’t use too many idioms. Be aware, however, that some Japanese will close their eyes almost no matter what – it’s that ingrained of a habit. You may also want to consider changing the format of your meeting, to encourage more discussion and interaction.
Another reason why Japanese close their eyes in meetings occurs in the case of senior executives. Typically this is limited to the one highest-ranking individual in the meeting. They will sit with their eyes closed and their head tilted downward, looking for all the world like they are catching a catnap. However, this is merely a way for them to disguise their non-verbal signals – as if they had drawn a shade down in front of their face. Senior executives tend to do this as a way of keeping their cards close to them and not letting everyone know their reaction to what is being said. If they didn’t do this, all the other Japanese in the meeting would be scanning their expression for clues as to what they are thinking.
Closing one’s eyes and tilting one’s head downward is also a way for a senior executive to demonstrate that they are not the one who is running the meeting. In Japan, senior people will often take a sideline role in order to give younger employees a chance to shine by taking center stage. It may also be the case that the younger employees speak better English and thus are better suited to the primary speaking role. Also, in Japanese culture being quiet is thought to be more dignified, and thus is more appropriate for a senior person than being talkative. Of course, this is the opposite of the American custom of having the most senior person take the lead in the meeting and do the most talking. So it’s particularly unnerving to Americans when the senior-most person appears to be sleeping – it seems like a sure sign of failure! Just be sure to temper your emotional reaction with this logical information on why this is happening.