To the Editor

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2003

Trust no one

FOR THE FOREIGNER LIVING in Japan it is a no-brainer that speaking Japanese can make life a lot easier. You can ask questions, engage in conversation and increase the scope of your Japanese contacts. The benefits are obvious. But it is often said that Japanese don't trust foreigners who are extremely fluent in Japanese. For some reason it makes them feel "uncomfortable." It's a "cultural thing." It does make you wonder why we should make the time investment to become fluent if the end result is suspicion. In particular it makes the use of your fluent Japanese in business negotiations a bit of a conundrum. Are the other side impressed with your mastery of their language or are they thinking that you are a "henna gaijin" and thus, somehow, inherently untrustworthy?

A few years back I was involved in negotiations with a company that had contracted us to investigate the direct importation of produce. The company had very little previous contact with foreigners and the international market place. My partner at the time was not only fluent in Japanese. He was articulate. You could say he was better at speaking Japanese than most Japanese are. Yet, during negotiations, he always insisted on using a translator and speaking English. I soon discovered that the benefits were many. The first was that he was presenting what the other side expected to see: a foreigner, who could speak a basic level of Japanese in deference to his business circumstances, but was not fluent enough to deal with the intricacies of business negotiations. Second was that the use of a translator allowed him time to think. The buyers would state their case, which he understood, and while the translator was talking into his ear, he would already be mulling over the response. It gave him the luxury of time, much like an email, to formulate his response. Third, and to some this may seem sneaky and underhanded, was that the buyers would often lower their guard and engage in a bit of table talk amongst themselves, thus giving us some strong indicators of how the negotiations were going. Also, if you are speaking Japanese you are also expected, to a certain extent, to act Japanese. That generally involves beating around the bush and avoiding direct questions. Using English through a translator you are free to say what you want to say and ask what you want to ask. Direct and pertinent questions won't ruffle any feathers because the translator will soften it in terms of wording but not impact.

His sudden and miraculous fluency in Japanese during post negotiation socializing and future meetings never seemed to raise an eyebrow with the buyers. They were satisfied that he had presented what they had expected to see during the initial business negotiations, and were delighted that they could freely communicate with him now that the serious negotiations were past. In a way, sales is the art of being a chameleon. You have to adapt to the other side's expectations in order to create an environment where trust can flourish. It is not your job to fix cultural misconceptions nor is it your job to inform the ignorant. Your job is to be a professional and get the contract.

Graeme Glen

I FLEW FROM NARITA to New York yesterday and was amazed by the SARS-phobia.

All of the US Customs & Immigration guys were wearing surgical masks (nearly as effective against SARS as a lucky sweater) and rubber gloves. The Immigration guy I spoke with said, "Tell me, honestly, how bad is it (SARS) over there in Japan?" I told him it was worse here in the US and asked if he knew where I could get one of those cool masks. I couldn't tell what he said through the mask, but it sounded like, "Move along, wiseass."

Leo Keeley
VP and General Manager, Ariba Asia-Pacific Operations

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