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Was That Snoring I Heard? Japanese Who Sleep in Meetings

When Japanese close their eyes in meetings, are they sleeping? And if so, why?

Actually, most of the time, they are not asleep. Often, closed eyes mean they are listening intently, concentrating on what’s being said.

Sometimes Japanese close their eyes in meetings if they are the highest-ranking senior executive at the meeting. In such a case, a person will sit with his eyes closed and head tilted downward, as if catching a catnap. Actually, though, he is probably trying to mask his facial expressions so as not to let everyone know his reaction to the presentation. Otherwise, everyone in the meeting would be scanning his face for clues as to his opinions.

The “catnap look” is also a way for a senior executive to demonstrate that he is not running the meeting. In Japan, senior people will often take a sideline role in order to give younger employees a chance at center stage.

Non-Japanese may find it rude, but since Japanese don’t have the custom of maintaining eye contact with the person who is talking, closing one’s eyes carries no connotation of rudeness for Japanese. Indeed, Japanese typically don’t realize that non-Japanese may be offended.

Of course, sometimes someone actually does fall asleep in a meeting. (You can usually tell because the person’s mouth falls open or he begins to snore!) However, this is typically overlooked, because fatigue is usually seen as a result of staying up late for overseas conference calls or entertaining customers. Furthermore, Japanese don’t expect all participants at a meeting to contribute to the conversation, so people whose connection to the topic is more tangential may feel that they can safely catch a couple of winks.

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.