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Beg to Disagree – Handling Differences of Opinion

Japanese and non-Japanese have very different ideas about how to express a difference of opinion in conversation.

In most Western cultures, it’s considered important to get differences of opinion on the table. Debate is a skill honed at school and throughout life, and can even be considered an enjoyable pastime. People tend to be judged on their ability to make a persuasive argument.

In Japanese culture, by contrast, conversations tend to be about seeking areas of common ground. Expression of a contrasting opinion is avoided. If it must be done, it is done as carefully as possible.

Here’s a typical example. A couple of U.S. managers and Japanese managers working for a Japanese company in the U.S. go out together for dinner. During the evening, the two American managers take up a spirited debate about some matter or another. They have very different opinions, and express them clearly to each other.

Several weeks later, one of the Japanese people who had been at the dinner asks one of the Americans if everything is alright between him and the other American manager. “Of course,” answers the surprised American. The American is nonplussed, barely remembering that he and his colleague had disagreed that evening. The Japanese is relieved because he left the evening uncomfortable, assuming that the American colleagues had been having a terrible argument.

Most people in the west try to separate how they feel about a person and how they feel about that person’s ideas. They may like someone and disagree with him bitterly, or not much like him but agree with some of his ideas. In contrast, in Japan there is a tendency to conflate feelings about a person and feelings about their ideas. In Japan, to express direct disagreement with someone can easily be interpreted as not liking or not respecting him.

As a result, the casual way that non-Japanese express differing opinions can be shocking to Japanese. For westerners working with Japanese, it’s important to tone down the directness. Rather than “I think you’re wrong,” or “That probably won’t work,” choose a more subtle approach, such as “I was looking at it differently” or “I’d like to suggest another way it could be done.”

Japanese business etiquette training and seminars are a specialty of Japan Intercultural Consulting. Please contact us for more information on how we can help you prepare for successful interactions with Japanese clients, customers, and business partners.