Facial expressions and gestures are key elements of communication in Japan, as a considerable amount of communication with Japanese takes place on a non-verbal level. For a successful conversation or negotiation, it is absolutely necessary to understand these verbal and non-verbal cues.
Japanese facial expressions and gestures in business life are very uniform. Feelings such as disappointment or annoyance will rarely be seen in Japan during day-to-day business. It is particularly important to hide your true emotions during meetings and negotiations. So curb your enthusiasm and try to keep your gesticulations to a minimum during speeches or presentations.
Smiling is often a sign that you have put your interlocutor in an unpleasant or embarrassing situation. When a Japanese manager is confronted with a mistake or business failure, they will smile to conceal their embarrassment.
It is considered to be inappropriate to laugh openly when doing business. Many Japanese women even hold their hands in front of their mouths when laughing. On the other hand, you will be surprised at how exuberantly Japanese people can party and laugh during an evening of entertainment and in their personal lives.
You should of course always pay attention to your posture. This is especially important when dealing with people from Japan, as an upright posture shows good character, healthy self-confidence and respect.
If you are standing together with Japanese people, at receptions or welcome talks, for example, you should keep your arms to the side of your body. Do not put your hands in your trouser pockets; you will come across as loutish. Try to sit up straight at the conference table or restaurant as well and place your hands on your lap or the edge of the table. It’s also inappropriate to cross or stretch your legs out.
In many countries, constant eye contact is important both during greetings and conversations. This shows respect and openness. In Japan, you still keep eye contact while talking, but much less so. It is even considered disrespectful to constantly look higher-ranking people in the eye.
Silence as an element of communication is also important in meetings and negotiations in Japan. Not only do the Japanese remain silent when they are thinking, but also when they do not want to respond negatively to questions and are trying to circumvent an answer. In other words, silence can also mean rejection.
However, it can also be used to unsettle foreign business partners, e.g. in negotiations. Westerners in particular find it difficult to cope with long periods of silence. Try to stay calm in such a situation and hold out against the silence. And if you say something to break the silence, don’t make any concessions; just repeat what you have just said. Sometimes it also helps to silently count up to ten.
Please be aware that shrugging shoulders mean ”no idea” in the West, but just confuses the Japanese. Also, do not point your index finger at others, as this will appear disparaging. Instead, point with your whole hand at someone or wave at them if necessary with your hand down.
Let me show you a few more gestures that are useful in dealing with Japanese people:
As you know, Japanese traditionally greet each other by bowing with their hands in front of their breasts. The more deeply a Japanese person bows, the more respect they are showing to their counterpart. Employees bow more deeply to the head of the company than the head of the company will bow to them. By the way, bowing can also mean that you are sorry, that you made a mistake.
When you speak at a meeting or during business negotiations, you will notice that your listeners will nod their heads a lot. This is only a signal to show you that they are paying attention. Nodding their heads doesn’t mean they agree with what you’re saying. It’s more like “I’m listening to you, you have my attention”. So don’t confuse frequent nodding of the head with approval!
A Japanese fanning his hand in front of his nose means “no”. Crossed fingers, crossed hands and crossed arms also mean “no”. By the way, this is why you should never cross off the options on a list in Japan. A cross always means no. It would be better to circle the answer!
If your business partner puts their head to one side and sucks in some air, you can take this to mean: “I’m not sure, 90 per cent no”. If their gaze also goes towards the ceiling, it means “99 per cent no”.
And here’s one last gesture I’d like to show you:
Sometimes when we talk about ourselves, we point our index fingers at our chest. “Me? Do you mean me?” There is a very similar gesture in Japan. However, here, people point their index finger to their nose!