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Hear One, Understand Ten – Reading Between the Lines

“Hear One, Understand Ten” (ichi ieba ju wo shiru) is a Japanese phrase that sums up the Japanese approach to communication. The idea is that two people working together should be so in tune with each other that wordy explanations are not necessary. Ideally, a concise statement of “one” should enable the other person to figure out the other nine. The idea is that a shared background puts both parties on the same wavelength. There is also a great emphasis on non-verbal communication, including posture, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and non-word sounds (umm, hmm, ahh, etc.).

This is quite different from the American approach, which emphasizes verbal precision. This can cause Americans to complain that, “It seems like they aren’t open about sharing information and opinions.”

When Americans want to communicate ten, they say all ten, and in many cases eleven or twelve, just to be sure! This strikes many Japanese as unnecessarily verbose, and when combined with the language barrier can make them feel overwhelmed with words.

What are some ways to overcome this difference in communication style?

When someone Japanese is speaking and you feel that you have only heard “one,” ask clarifying questions to draw out the “nine” that were left unspoken. Be sure to ask non-threatening questions, such as: “Please explain more of the background,” “Is there anything I should be particularly careful about?” “Do you have any advice for me?” or “Is there any more information you need?” “Can you define that term for me, please?” This way, you can gently gather further information.

In order not to deluge a Japanese listener, think through what you want to say ahead of time and boil it down to the key points. Also, avoid American habits such as “thinking out loud,” and “playing devil’s advocate,” which can be confusing. Clear, concise communication will be greatly appreciated.

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.