Whenever I return to Japan after having been outside the country, I marvel once again at how smoothly things work. This is a combination of several factors. One is that trains and anything else with a schedule run like clockwork. Another is that tasks are carried out with a great deal of efficiency. And yet another is that high levels of customer service and attention to detail mean that someone is always checking and taking it upon themselves to ensure that everything will work out just right.
The combined effect of all of these things is that when in Japan, one can go through life expecting that things will go a certain way, and in nearly all cases one won’t be disappointed. The train will come when it’s supposed to come, people will show up when they say they will (or earlier) and everyone one meets will take care of things efficiently and pleasantly. Conversations will follow familiar, ritual patterns. As a result, when I am in Japan, I feel like I am gliding through life. Everyday activities feel frictionless. Let’s just say that life doesn’t always feel like that when I’m at home in the U.S. Rather I seem to be constantly reminded of the famous catchphrase of the Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Roseannadanna: “It’s always something!”
What this all boils down to is a sense of predictability that one can enjoy in Japan. And while I’m here on this trip, it occurs to me that it’s this sense of predictability that Japanese truly crave in their interactions. And that predictability is often what is most lacking when they are dealing with people from overseas or spending time in other countries.
I’m reminded of a situation that occurred several years ago. A Japanese expatriate who was going to be participating in a leadership seminar I was teaching had gathered 360 degree feedback from his subordinates, which I had requested to receive for processing before the seminar. So he put it in an envelope and sent it through the mail. When it didn’t arrive, he was completely incredulous. I had to explain to him that unfortunately the postal service in the U.S. is not as reliable as it is in Japan. Things sometimes get lost, so anything valuable like his feedback forms is better sent through FedEx or UPS. I could tell that he didn’t really believe me and thought that I had just been sloppy and misplaced it. The idea that a postal service could be unreliable just didn’t seem to be possible to him.
In order to have successful business relationships with Japanese colleagues, I think that it’s important to take this factor of predictability into account. To the extent that the system in your country, like the U.S. post office, is not completely reliable, help give them the context that they need in order to understand it. And the more that you can make your own interactions predictable — by being on time, answering emails promptly, doing things efficiently, and taking a consistent approach — the more that Japanese will feel comfortable with you and will trust you.
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