The Clashing Communication Styles Of Japanese And European Cultures
Japan is a truly wonderful country – never have I met such helpful and considerate people while travelling, and the amount of friendliness you encounter every day is astonishing. I often heard that this is a “superficial” politeness, and you never know what really lies behind the smiles.
But what I’ve learnt so far is that Japan has a high context culture, which emphasis on deep personal relationships and cultural values that relies on unspoken communication and reading between the lines. They interpret the context and messages, which is unknown for many Western countries which live in a low context culture. The cultures are characterized by people who have a strong sense of individualism and say exactly what they mean – there’s no beating around the bush here.
While the scale of low and high context cultures has many marks in between, I had some experience of living in countries which lie on the exact opposites of that scale. Japan is considered one of the highest context cultures in the world, while Germany is one of the best examples for a low context culture. Here are three differences I experienced while studying in Japan that completely contrasted the low context culture I experienced by growing up in Germany:
Communal vs. individualistic work place
In Japan people tend to work closer together. Group tasks are frequent and it is important to work together harmoniously and skillfully. A polychromic approach of task management is often achieved through many involved members. This means Japanese people become experts in multitasking and many different tasks are tackled at the same time. Success is best achieved with teamwork.
On the other hand, there’s Germany – a country which holds a worldview of self-reliant work. Therefore, people are often assigned one task at a time which will be finished with to the best possible outcome an individual can achieve. The tasks are clearly assigned in a group and only in the end all results are brought together, and it is often the case that even in a group project members get evaluated individually.
Work-life fusion vs. separation
When I was out late at night in Tokyo I was astonished by how many people in suits were out the streets; either entering a bar, greeting a member farewell or just leaving the office. There is a saying that Japanese people are married to their companies, because of the intensity and super long hours they spend in their office. It is important how well you perform with your coworkers and do your job, and there are countless unspoken rules you need to follow, such as staying with your department after work to drink. Socializing with colleagues is the norm as it strengthens and develops the group relationship.
Then there’s Germany, who cannot wait to end work to go back to their own life. They strictly separate these two and won’t let it interfere. No. Matter. What. They will give their all when they are at the work place but don’t want to bother with any office affairs when they enter home and get their “Feierabendbier” – the well-earned “off work beer”. Germans aim to have a healthy balance between work and leisure time.
Indirect vs. direct communication
You don’t simply say “no” in Japan. In fact, it would be impolite to decline something. Instead, you need to say why something is impossible for you to do, then say that you are deeply sorry for the trouble and, finally, look for an alternative. It is important how you deliver your message, including facial expressions and the tone of your voice. Your behavior and attitude towards your conversation partner speaks its own language itself.
The key is non-confrontation, and while this way of communication is often perceived as confusing, I have to admit I found it pleasant – because when you can’t really speak the language but approach everyone with a smile, you send your own message: “Sorry I don’t speak Japanese, but I’m grateful for being here and will give my best.”
If you can’t speak German and end up stuttering some words at a local while smiling helplessly at them, they would probably wonder which crime you’re trying to hide. German communication is direct to the point that it is often regarded as overly critical or blunt. If you ask a German for an opinion you get exactly that; when evaluating a performance, they won’t waste words with good aspects, but focus on areas of improvement. This critical and analytical thoroughness is aimed to prevent any misunderstandings and help the other person grow. A thick skin is essential.
Both countries are different in their style, but incredibly fascinating to live in – and no matter in which country you are, you will experience elements of high or low context cultures, so let us know in the comments where you’ve been and how you felt!