Japanese businesspeople have a sense of humor

A British client attended some customer satisfaction survey interviews I conducted recently with Japanese companies. Later, I asked her if there was anything she had found surprising about the meetings. It was her first trip to Japan and she did not speak any Japanese. Her response was that the Japanese customers laughed a lot more than she was expecting.

British people who are not very familiar with Japanese people tend to assume that Japanese are formal, polite and very serious. Anyone who has spent some time working with Japanese people or living in Japan will know that in fact it is completely wrong to assert that Japanese do not have a sense of humour. Actually, Japanese people sometimes mention to me that they wish British people would relax and lighten up a bit more, especially “after five.”

I wasn’t cracking jokes during the customer interviews, nor am I fluent enough in Japanese to be able to pull off Japanese ‘share’ humour – word play and puns. I would like to think the laughter wasn’t embarrassed laughter, either. I was also not being sarcastic, ironic or teasing. These are types of humour the British use frequently, even in formal business settings, and they can cause misunderstandings in crosscultural situations.

A British marketing director working for a Japanese car company told me of a disastrous board meeting he once attended. The Dutch and German directors were arguing, vehemently putting their points of view forward and aggressively disagreeing with each other. The Japanese managing director became increasingly uncomfortable with this atmosphere and intervened, saying, “Perhaps now you would like to hear my comments.” The British sales director responded, “Oh, we don’t want to hear your comments.” The Japanese managing director then walked out of the meeting, presumably to avoid losing face as he was close to losing his temper.

The marketing director ran after the managing director to impress upon him that “Mike was just joking.” The Japanese managing director replied, “I realise that, but it was not appropriate.” Clearly Mike was trying to lighten the atmosphere with a bit of sarcasm, but it went badly wrong.

Most British wince when I tell them this story. I explain that Japanese are perfectly capable of being sarcastic and tease each other regularly, even in the workplace. But humour does not translate well if it transgresses cultural values too aggressively, particularly in formal business settings. In this case, the Japanese need for harmony – and also respect for hierarchy – was threatened by Mike’s remark.

So what did I say that was so funny in my meetings with Japanese clients? To be honest, I don’t really know. I suspect it was more about being witty, showing that I had a sense of the absurd and being self deprecating – humour traits the British like to pride themselves on and which the Japanese also enjoy. It seems wit, absurdity and self deprecation cross cultures much more successfully than sarcasm, jokes or puns.

This article originally appeared in the Nikkei Weekly

“Don’t be sarcastic” is one of our Top 10 Don’ts for business trips to Japan, which features in our training courses in the classroom and online.

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