- Indirect Communication: The Japanese communication pattern is very indirect and far less verbose than what the English-speaking West is familiar with. They rely less on words to convey context and are more attentive to the posture, expression and tone of voice of the speaker to draw meaning from a conversation. In order to maintain harmony throughout conversation and prevent a loss of face on either end, they may use ambiguous speech and understatements to convey their message in a more subtle way. The best way of navigating around this rhetoric to find the underlying meaning is to check for clarification several times using open-ended questions.
- Refusals: The cultural preoccupation with saving face and being polite means that the Japanese may wish to avoid giving a flat “no” or negative response—even when they don’t agree with you. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation. Listen closely to what they say, but also pay careful attention to what they don’t say and implicitly mean. It’s a good idea to clarify and double check your understanding.
- Laughter: When communicating bad news, a Japanese person may smile and laugh to diffuse the uncomfortable situation. People may also cover their mouth when they giggle. It is rare to see big bursts of laughter with corresponding gestures.
- Physical Contact: The appropriacy of physical contact varies depending on the context in Japan. You can expect a Japanese person to immediately apologise if they bump into or brush against you by accident. However, often the situation is unavoidable (e.g. on crowded public transport). In these situations, people are generally accustomed to a lack of personal space.
- Body Language: The Japanese do not gesture very much while speaking as their body language is largely restrained. Instead, they often hold their hands together as they speak which prevents them from gesturing throughout conversation.
- Eye Contact: The Japanese avoid eye contact with strangers as it is considered rude to stare.
- Facial Expressions: It is common for Japanese people to maintain a placid expression and smile during an interaction regardless of the topic. This evidently differs between personalities, but a modest, reserved demeanour is polite. Furthermore, consider that whilst smiling can indicate happiness, it is sometimes used in an attempt to cover awkwardness or sadness.
- Nodding: Japanese people often nod to acknowledge what is said. However, this does not always mean they agree or understand. It is primarily a gesture made out of politeness.
- Feet: Displaying the soles of your feet is considered rude.
- Inhaling: When a Japanese person inhales air through their teeth, it usually implies disagreement.
- Silence: Silence is an important and purposeful tool used in Asian communication. Pausing before giving a response indicates that someone has applied appropriate thought and consideration to the question. This reflects politeness and respect.
- Beckoning: It is impolite to beckon people who you are not close friends with. Beckoning is done by facing the palm of the hand to the ground and waving one’s fingers towards oneself. Individual fingers should not be used.
- Pointing: Pointing is done using the entire hand unless referring to oneself, in which case they place their index finger on their nose.
- Waving: Shaking the hand with the palm facing forward from side to side means “no”.
- Gestures: A Japanese person may clasp their hands together in front of their chest when apologising or accepting something. This expresses gratitude and respect.
- Bowing: See ‘Greetings’ for guidelines on how to bow.