Tuesday, April 8, 2014

If you want to understand what a Japanese wants to say, listen to their hearts and not their words.

There's a very old Japanese saying that goes like this; "If you want to understand what a Japanese wants to say, listen to their hearts and not their words."

When I first came to live in Japan, I was told this by many of my close Japanese friends. I couldn't understand it at all. I mean, as a westerner, and a male, it made no sense to me... It didn't make any sense to me for the first 15 or 20 years of my living in Japan. 

My reasoning went like this: How was I to understand what someone is thinking when their words tell me one thing, but they really mean the exact opposite? I am not Houdini or some sort of clairvoyant mind reader! 

I think I got upset about this happening so much in Japan. I think all foreigners who live here do also.

In fact, I remember many years ago, a very close friend of mine in Japan having much troubles because he always took what Japanese people said at face-value and considered them "liars" because they would often say one thing, but mean another. They would rarely "speak their hearts." We had long discussions about this and he would often be angry and demand to me, 

"If they think that, why don't they just say so?!"

It is often said that Japanese people never say, "No!" Also they never say what they really mean. Their true meaning is not in words spoken from their mouths, but from their hearts. 

I used to think I needed a stethoscope to get around Japan and understand what the Japanese were saying!

My very close friend left Japan many years ago and never returned.

This doctor won't need that stethoscope to know what I'm thinking when she examines me

Now, after working in and with big companies as a lackey foreigner or gaijin advisor to high ranking executives; after seeing grown Japanese men crying at meetings; after dismissing several dozen Japanese staff from their duties when I was the only foreigner dumb enough to accept a general manager position at a Japanese company; after serving drinks (and inhaling them) at many corporate parties; after two divorces, and finally one happy marriage (today nearly 20 years); this saying makes perfect sense to me:

"If you want to understand what a Japanese wants to say, listen to their hearts and not their words."

Recently, I've had two dear friends visiting from overseas for work. I witnessed this saying in action yesterday twice within the span of a few hours.

The first example was when one of my friends (who doesn't speak Japanese) asked a nice Japanese gentleman to make a short speech in English for a promotional video. The Japanese man said something like,

"Oh, yes. I can do that."

But as soon as my foreign friend was out of earshot, the Japanese gentlemen leaned to me and said, "Mike! What should I do?"

Now, most people would think that the, "What should I do?" means, "Help me with my English." Or, "How shall I say this?" But that's not what he means. Those are his words, but by listening to his heart, I could tell what he was really saying was, "I do not have confidence in my English to make a speech. Isn't there anything you can do for me?"

I looked him right in the eye and said, "I understand. How about we do just a little comment in English and the rest in Japanese?"

His eyes grew bright and he smiled and shook my hand with a sigh or great relief, "Oh yes. That would be best. Thank you."

We held almost all the speech in Japanese. It went well. A success.

The second case was when we went to a different company to organize a project that had been ordered by the big boss. We met two sections chiefs and one of their marketing staff. We did the Japanese business card exchange ritual and sat down. The first thing out of the section chief's mouth was,

"Thank you for coming. We were ordered by our boss to make a video and told we don't have any time except today..."

Once again, any rationally thinking westerner would hear that and shake their heads in agreement.

But that isn't what the guy's heart was saying was, I knew exactly what his heart was saying, and it was this,

"Thank you for coming. We were ordered by our boss to make a video and told we don't have any time except today. This is worrisome as we just found out about it. We have absolutely no plan on what we want and how to do it. Do we have to do it today?"

They had no idea what was going on but couldn't defy the bosses orders... They were hinting to us that they wanted time to make a plan. It was plainly obvious to me. I said,

"Oh? Well, dear sirs, we are merely here to help you and it isn't necessary at all to make this video today. We are here to show you what we can do and when you folks are ready, we're here to help you. We can even attend your planning meetings, if you like."

It was like a huge balloon filled with the hot air of tension deflated right there on the spot. Our Japanese hosts suddenly allowed their backs to relax and they slightly sank back into their seats knowing the "Sword of Damocles" wasn't hanging over their heads at that very moment.

I felt good that I could understand what these two cases really wanted to say when they spoke. It was very satisfying. 

From understanding their hearts, I immediately built a bond of great trust and a sort of acceptance and intimate understanding with these good folks just like the Japanese have with each other. (Or so thinks foolish foreigner? - Me)

It was wonderful that my two foreign friends could witness this first hand when they were here.

If all of us foreigners living and working in Japan remember this, it makes working and living with the Japanese all that much easier.

"If you want to understand what a Japanese wants to say, listen to their hearts and not their words."


Shawnesy said...

Wow Mike. That was a great! I'm currently having difficulties at work dealing with some foreign clients (Indian in this case, not Japanese). Now I'm thinking that some of my problems may lie with my too literal American approach.

I'm looking at things in a whole new light!

Anonymous said...

Still think life would be much easier if Japanese people would grow a pair and just say what they want.
After almost 20 years relationship with my Japanese wife, I still don't understand her sometimes…

Shefi said...

Long time ago, an English friend teaching in Tokyo high schools, passed on this advice from a Japanese colleague of his with regard to his female students: "You have to finger their feelings." Memorable, eh?

Can't say I'm any better at it now than I was then, tho.

And the Japanese are very good at saying "No", in hundreds of diplomatic ways that sound like "yes" until you think about it (or they just don't show up).

Sensing another person's mood or intention is a great skill, of course, not limited in usefulness to the Japanese context only.

But then again, it can be fun to watch people getting themselves into scrapes because they just "went along to get along"!

Walton Lee said...

To summarize:

In the West, meaning and impact come directly from what is said and not so much from what is implied.

In Japan, it is the complete opposite. It is what is not said that has the meaning. To really get a grasp of communication in Japan, you must learn to 'read between the lines' figure out what the speaker is trying to imply and not focus so much on literal interpretations.

Great article, Mike

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