switching into Japanese in a meeting


This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese.


One of the greatest annoyances to non-Japanese who meet with Japanese is when suddenly, in the middle of a meeting being held in English, the Japanese launch into a conversation in Japanese. Those participants who do not speak Japanese feel left out, and may even be offended. Particularly in the United States, where speaking English is the universally expected norm, choosing to use a language that others present do not understand may be viewed as intentionally being secretive.

Of course, it’s rare that Japanese switch into the Japanese language in order to tell secrets in front of the non-Japanese in the meeting. Most often, Japanese are tempted to use their native tongue when they want to express something that is complex or technical in nature. Or, when they have become confused by something, many Japanese are tempted to turn to the person next to them and ask their question in Japanese rather than lose face by questioning the native English speaker who was talking. Having a mixture of English abilities among the Japanese participants can also lead to Japanese use, as those more fluent help those less fluent to catch up.

Ideally, there should be some flexibility in language use, and the non-Japanese should be sensitive to the Japanese need to occasionally speak in Japanese. These sidebars can indeed help move a meeting along, and ensure that everyone is keeping up.

At the same time, Japanese need to be aware that switching to speaking Japanese can be disruptive, and perceived as insensitive. Ideally, as little Japanese as possible should be used during meetings. And, when Japanese is used, a little proper etiquette can make things smoother.

My suggestion for the “etiquette” in this case has several steps.

First, before launching into Japanese, ask permission by saying “May we speak in Japanese for a moment?” or “Do you mind if we speak in Japanese briefly?” Alternatively, apologize by saying “Excuse me, we need to speak in Japanese.” Or “I’m sorry, but I’d like to speak in Japanese.”

Second, explain why you want to use Japanese. This helps the listeners understand, and will make them more inclined to be cooperative. For example, “We need to check a technical detail” or “I want to confirm that Sato-san understood.”

Then, begin using Japanese. While speaking Japanese, it’s best to avoid using proper names, especially of people who are present who do not speak Japanese. Because “blah blah blah blah John blah blah” is apt to be annoying or even upsetting to John.

It’s also important to keep the Japanese conversation short. I have heard of many situations in which Japanese participants, so relieved to be speaking their native language, simply continued on in Japanese for the rest of the meeting, leaving out those who did not speak Japanese. In general, three minutes is the upper limit. If you feel that you want to speak in Japanese for longer than that, you need to consider whether it would be better to have a separate meeting with Japanese speakers only, or to invite an interpreter to assist.

After the Japanese portion has ended and you return to English, be sure to say “Thank you”. You might say “Thank you for your patience” or “We appreciate your waiting.” Then, be sure to give a brief summary of what was said in Japanese, so that those who don’t speak Japanese don’t feel like they missed something. For example, “Mr. Sato now understands” or “We confirmed the technical details, and agree with what you said about the specifications.”


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