A Quick Course in Japanese Etiquette (Post 2 of 2)

Bicycle LaneMy last post covered a few issues to be aware of when meeting with Japanese businessmen and women. The following is an addendum to those ideas, but with a focus on customs that are often misinterpreted or misunderstood.

The Greeting: During introductions and greetings, shaking hands is perfectly acceptable. Avoid bowing. Since there are various levels of bowing, if you aren’t familiar with the differences, it’s best to avoid it completely. Example: The 90 degree angle bow is usually reserved for very high-ranking executives. I’ve heard stories, though, of Americans traveling abroad who gave full bows to the hotel doorman. This isn’t the worse faux pas in the world (probably made the doormen feel great), but underscores the need to know the different levels of bowing before you attempt it at all.

The Head Nod: Just because your Japanese host or guest may nod as you speak, does not indicate that they understand or agree with what you are saying.  They nod to acknowledge they hear you and to recognize that you hold the floor. V-e-r-y different meanings.

The Long Pause: When natural pauses in conversation occur, we often feel highly uncomfortable.  In Japan, however, these pauses are not considered awkward at all. They are a time for reflection on what has just been said and can often go on for 10 seconds or more.  Do not feel compelled to “jump in” and break the silence – use the opportunity to be more thoughtful in your response as well.

The Pour: In Japan, you do not pour your own beverage.  Your host will pour your drink and you, in turn, pour beverages for your guests. Bear in mind that as your glass gets empty, however, someone at the table will continue to fill it – if only to remind you that it’s time to fill THEIR glass.  Since it’s considered rude to refuse a pour, if you don’t want to overindulge, it’s best not to finish your drink.

This is obviously just scratching the surface of Japanese etiquette but, as stated before, you can get away with a lot as long as you’re trying to be polite. Good luck!

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