Communication Style in Japan and the West

Communication style is another aspect where Western and Japanese cultures tend to differ greatly. At the workplace, Japanese companies and employees tend to value indirect and formal communication, relying on nonverbal and non-explicit forms of communication. In a high-context culture like Japan’s, one is expected to observe their surroundings, read the atmosphere, and act accordingly based on a shared understanding of what should be done. In contrast, low-context cultures like America’s rely on straightforward and explicit verbal communication. As a result, expatriate workers who are used to low-context communication styles may struggle in Japanese work environments due to the various unspoken rules that they are expected to follow. Frustrations with lack of clear communication can also become an issue in facilitating a friendly work environment. When introducing employees from foreign cultures to a Japanese work environment, steps should be taken to mitigate the initial confusion and misunderstandings to ensure that work can proceed smoothly.

Another aspect where Japan’s high-context culture is demonstrated is in the concept of “honne,” defined loosely as one’s true feelings, and “tatemae,” which in contrast refers to things people say or do to maintain politeness. One common example of this would be when one is complimented on being good at Japanese, even if they have only spoken a few words or basic phrases. Since the concept of tatemae revolves around being conscious of the other person’s feelings, Japanese people may say this even if they don’t truly believe it. For people who are unfamiliar with this aspect of Japanese culture, similar experiences can feel ingenuine and frustrating. Within the formality and politeness of Japanese culture, however, it is often socially inappropriate for people to express exactly what they mean, so not saying exactly what they mean can help save face for everyone involved. Picking up on the social cues and implications behind something said for politeness’s sake is important to effective communication and maintaining good relationships with others in Japanese society.