By Rochelle Kopp, Managing Principal, Japan Intercultural Consulting
This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese, that originally appeared in the Japan Times
One significant challenge that Japanese face when communicating with non-Japanese is the difference in what one might call "discourse styles." In other words, what seems like a logical way of explaining things in Japanese may not necessarily seem logical in English. For this reason, Japanese statements in meetings may not have as much impact as they could. By switching to a more natural English discourse style, Japanese can increase their ability to be effective in meetings with non-Japanese.
The difference in logic is due to the fact that Japanese discourse style is based on the tradition of kisho-tenketsu. This is the format that Japanese schoolchildren are taught to write in, and that is used in various forms of Japanese writing including essays and journalism. In kisho-tenketsu, the order of discourse is to start with the "ki" -- statement of the topic -- and proceed with the "sho" --detailed discussion. Then, there is the "ten", a change in point of view or looking at the issue from a different angle. Finally, there is the "ketsu", or conclusion.
When Japanese use the kisho-tenketsu pattern, it's often difficult for non-Japanese to follow. It can seem meandering and unfocused, and many non-Japanese listeners will tend to wonder "what's the point?" This is because in typical English discourse, the conclusion is indicated first. Non-Japanese who are used to latching onto this initial conclusion statement as a guidepost will tend to be confused when they do not hear it.
Let's take a look at a typical statement that a Japanese person might make in a meeting, constructed in kisho-tenketsu form:
"I’m really worried about all the papers the conference participants will receive. It may be very inconvenient for them to have to juggle all those papers. They could become frustrated. We need to do something about it don’t you think? I’m sure everyone will expect it. I was thinking, could we give people something to hold the papers? Is there enough money in the budget to buy some bags?"
From a non-Japanese point of view this statement seems rambling and poorly structured. It probably won't command a lot of attention.
Let's look at how this topic could be stated more clearly and persuasively. An effective English discourse pattern is to begin with the conclusion, give supporting reasons, and then repeat the conclusion or recommendation.
Conclusion statement: "I think we should give each conference participant a bag when they arrive."
Supporting reasons: "Because they will be collecting many papers, and will appreciate having something to hold them. And people carrying the bags will be recognizable as being connected with our conference. So it will be a kind of PR too."
Restate conclusion: "That’s why I think it would be good to give each participant a bag."
This second statement is significantly more impactful than the first, and will be given more attention and respect when stated in an English meeting.
For even further impact, when stating your conclusion, one of the following phrases can be used to draw attention to it.
My conclusion is~
My recommendation is~
I have concluded that~
My opinion is~
I feel that~
To sum up how I feel,~
What I’m trying to get at is~
The main thing I want to convey is~
Since these statements use "I" and "my", they are appropriate for stating your own personal opinion. When you want to convey the opinion of a group that you represent, substitute "we" or "our."