In doing research for my guide for Japanese on how to have more effective meetings with non-Japanese (English for Effective Business Meetings Today, Japan Times, 2011), I discovered a significant Japanese pet peeve about how their non-Japanese colleagues conduct meetings. Unbeknownst to many non-Japanese, not receiving meeting materials in advance drives Japanese businesspeople crazy!
When’s the last time somebody gave you meeting materials ahead of time? In many countries outside Japan, meeting materials are typically distributed at the outset of the meeting, and not beforehand. One reason is that often they are not completed until right before the meeting. Working up until the last minute gives more time to the preparer to add those finishing touches. Also, in many cases, people are so busy that they don’t have time to read anything before the meeting. And they would also forget to bring their copies along, making it necessary to have a whole other stack of copies to be handed out at the meeting even if copies were distributed beforehand.
Getting the materials, absorbing them, and reacting to them quickly is not a problem if they are in your native language. And for many westerners, being able to begin talking about something right away after receiving it is a sign of the ability to “think on one’s feet,” which is considered a positive quality.
However, for Japanese, not receiving materials before the meeting leads to feelings of discomfort and uneasiness. It’s very difficult to quickly absorb and digest something not in one’s own language. It can almost seem like the non-Japanese are consciously trying to put the Japanese at a disadvantage. Also, Japanese culture values thinking things through thoroughly, rather than talking off the top of one’s head or saying what’s on the tip of one’s tongue. So if there is not enough time to think something over ahead of time, Japanese feel uncomfortable discussing it.
The following are some typical comments from Japanese about why they don’t like getting materials for the first time when they walk into a meeting.
“I hate getting to a meeting and having a stack of papers plopped down in front of me. It means I either read the papers, or listen to what is being said – there’s no way I can do both.”
“It’s not fair to expect us to have a meaningful discussion about something we just received two minutes before, much less make a decision.”
“I need time to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary and digest things beforehand.”
These are quite common feelings. Expecting someone to rapidly peruse and react to something written in their second language is a tall order, and as mentioned earlier also goes against Japanese culture.
When I talk with non-Japanese about their common frustrations concerning meetings with Japanese, “they don’t participate,” “they don’t say what they think,” and “we don’t make a decision during the meeting – they tell us they need to study more and will get back to us later.” These typical concerns can be traced at least in part to lack of materials distribution before the meeting. When Japanese haven’t had time to prepare in advance, they will be reluctant to give opinions or agree to decisions.
But the importance of distributing materials upfront is not limited to meetings where a decision will be made. I recently spoke to a friend who will be visiting Japan on business for the first time. The purpose of his trip will be meeting with representatives of various Japanese companies in order to learn more about how a certain product category is marketed in Japan. My friend told me that he was concerned about his ability to get good information in those meetings. “From what I’ve heard about Japan, it sounds like people do not open up so readily. After having traveled so far, I don’t want to walk out of interviews thinking I haven’t gained any real insights.”
My recommendation to him to avoid this happening was to make sure that the people he will be meeting with know something about him and the purpose of the meeting. This will make them more comfortable, and enable them to prepare to talk about the specific topics that he is interested in. He said that he assumed his firm’s people on the ground in Tokyo who were setting up the meetings would be conveying this information. I suggested that to make sure this actually happens, he should prepare a one-page document that includes a brief biography for himself, and a description of the purpose of his study and the types of issues he would like to explore in the interviews. He should then ask his Tokyo-based colleagues to pass this along to each person who will be interviewed. Having this information in written form will ensure that it is conveyed accurately, will look organized and professional, and will be reassuring to the people he will be meeting with.
What should the materials look like?
Now that you’re convinced that you need to distribute materials ahead of time, what should those materials contain? The following are the key things to keep in mind.
- Make the logical flow clear. Lay out concisely the background of the issue, what you propose and why, and the impact of your proposal if it were to be implemented. In many cases Americans, who culturally tend to look forward rather than backward, do not include sufficient information about background. Be sure to describe the historical flow of events that led to the current situation, even if you feel that the recipients are likely to be familiar with them. Japanese don’t see any problem with presenting information that is generally agreed-upon before presenting new ideas. In fact, that’s a writing technique that Japanese frequently use, which any reader of Japanese companies’ annual reports can attest to. Japanese like to have such historical information in order to put ideas into context, and to ensure that decisions are made based on enduring trends rather than just temporary fads.
- If there’s a lot of information, prepare an executive summary or overview, and attach the detailed information as appendices.
- Use bullet points and outline form, rather than a long string of paragraphs. This breaks up your material, and makes it easier to follow the logical flow. Few things are more frustrating to non-native speakers than to have to wade through a sea of long paragraphs.
- Use visual aids. Diagrams, pictures, tables and charts are an extremely valuable way to present information.
- Define any key terms and acronyms that the readers may not be familiar with.
- Don’t forget the key rules of writing for non-native speakers – keep sentences short and grammar simple, avoid slang and jargon. Think through what you want to say, and boil it down to its essentials, in order to avoid drowning the reader in a torrent of words.
This article originally appeared in Japan Close-Up magazine.