Bowing to your colleagues, using super-polite language, and observing formal rituals when exchanging business cards are just a few of the ways doing business in Japan is different than anywhere else in the world.
I didn’t worry about any of that when I decided to move there after college—I was too intoxicated by visions of neon lights, bullet trains, and cherry blossoms. But after eight years and several jobs, ranging from English teacher and magazine writer to TV extra, I found myself immersed in this notoriously complex culture, adopting many customs that I would once have found unusual.
And now that I’ve been back in the States for a few years, I’ve realized that I don’t want to forget the habits I picked up in Japan. In fact, I think that trying a few of them here just might make everyone’s job a little more enjoyable. Here are a few Japanese customs that workers worldwide can learn from—and (easily!) adopt.
1. Start and End Every Encounter with a Greeting
When I taught in a Japanese junior high for the first time, my mouth nearly dropped to the floor when all the students stood up at the beginning of the class and bowed to me. Luckily, I was never expected to learn all the rules of bowing (it’s much more complicated than it looks!), but observing these exchanges within my own workplace taught me that greetings are essential and should not be neglected.
Taking the time to address people any time you meet them may seem like a frivolity, especially when everyone is always in a rush, but there’s something about starting and ending an exchange with politeness and courtesy that helps to smooth over everything that comes between. Small things, like saying hello and goodbye to your boss or co-workers every day or starting and ending emails with friendly greetings, can make a huge difference in the strength of your professional relationships.
2. Take Care of Your Environment
In the Japanese school system, the entire school participates in an activity called souji, which involves cleaning the classroom and the rest of the campus. Students, teachers, and principals alike will sweep the floors, wipe the blackboards, and pick up any scraps of paper or garbage they find. Because students know that they’ll have to clean up, they’re much less likely to make messes in the first place—and they feel a larger sense of pride in their school.
I loved this practice of taking responsibility for your environment, and it can certainly be applied in any workplace. Next time you see a mess in the office, instead of thinking “It was like that when I found it,” consider leaving things in better condition than when you arrived. If you have a common area where people eat lunch, make sure the table is wiped down and clean. Pick up trash that you see in the lobby or hallway. You’ll be surprised by how a small gesture like this can improve your mood—and your attitude about your office—almost instantaneously.
3. Learn to Appreciate the Unspoken
The Japanese believe that for every thought or opinion, there exists honne, your true feeling, and tatemae, what you say to another person to prevent hurt feelings and promote harmonious interaction. This means that it’s very uncommon for people to directly criticize or disagree with another person. It also means that for people coming from Western cultures, it can be extremely difficult to understand what’s going on.
But, as I eventually learned, even if they’re not saying it, the Japanese still express their real feelings in subtle ways. For example, when one of my co-workers would try to veer radically from the agenda in a meeting, my boss would tilt her head slightly and purse her lips. Instead of outright telling him to stay on topic, she hoped that her facial expressions would convey her displeasure.
Think about how you can pay more attention to non-verbal communication in your daily life. Take a moment to look at people’s facial expressions and body language. Are you engaging the interest of the committee conducting your job interview, or are they just counting down the minutes until they can politely usher you out of the room? Are people on the edge of their seats during your presentation, or slumped back in their chairs, tuned out? Once you know how to pick up on these types of cues, you can figure out how to adjust your behavior accordingly.
4. Keep Yourself Fresh
In Japan, I had a close group of female co-workers who I’d often join for lunch. Inevitably, when we returned to the office, everyone would head to the bathroom to freshen up their makeup and brush their teeth—something I’d never experienced in the States! When you think about it, though, it’s such a no-brainer. You’re working in close quarters with people, and you don’t want your lunch breath to waft over to the next desk and disturb your co-workers.
While appearance isn’t everything, small details like fresh breath or a little extra deodorant after a hot walk to work can really help you make a positive impression on someone—and avoid turning a potential client or business partner off. Try keeping a set of things that help you stay fresh—a toothbrush, deodorant, hairbrush, and the like—in your desk drawer, and don’t be afraid to use them (in private, of course).
5. Don’t Dismiss Anything as Trivial
Japan is well known for taking attention to detail to an almost obsessive extreme—just look at bonsai or exquisitely crafted sushi! This applies in an office setting, too. A lot of Japanese business etiquette revolves around details that may seem trivial if you’re unfamiliar with them, like who should get into an elevator first, where you should sit in a taxi if you’re riding with co-workers, and what type of tea you should serve to your visitors (it varies depending on the season).
It’s important to pay close attention to detail in the work world—even if the detail appears not to matter. Sure, you know you ought to avoid making typos in your resume or showing up late for a meeting. But have you thought about paying closer attention to where you sit and what your posture is like during a meeting? Whether you chat with other people in the elevator? What about the way you respond to a phone call that’s a wrong number? Even though these things may seem minor, nailing them can make all the difference in making you look professional and likeable.
The bullet trains and neon lights may just be faded memories now, and I’ve even trained myself to stop doing mini bows when I run into my co-workers at the water cooler or on the way to the bathroom, but not a day goes by that I don’t put into practice one of the business customs I picked up in Japan. I think you’ll find that adding a little extra courtesy, respect, and attention to detail to your work—no matter where in the world you find yourself—can only be a good thing.
Photo courtesy of iStock / Thinkstock.