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How to know what your team is thinking: 'Tatemae,' 'honne' and the 'gaijin' boss

9 Comments
By Dr Greg Story

The Japanese are famous for having learnt, over many centuries, how to get along with others. High-density living in the modern era and village communal agricultural activities in the past have both seeded probably the best example of how to have a complex, but low-friction society.

Arguments, fights and road rage do occur, but compared with anywhere else with such a population pressure cooker, Japan doesn’t even rate as a contender for worst practice. The concepts of tatemae, or publicly displayed opinions and feelings, and honne, or actual feelings, are a big part of creating that harmonious environment.

Of course, as foreigners, we initially struggle with this separation of the real world and the imagined world. It can seem that Japanese people can be two faced—saying one thing, but doing another. Being the bearer of bad news rarely becomes an issue in Japan, because no one ever delivers it. No shooting the messenger here, because people have learnt to be extremely circumspect about how much they tell others and how they tell it. The language is an admirable tool for this because it is excellent for being vague.

Western society does the same thing, but we tend to notice it more here. In your home country, if your father-in-law has been on a “see-food diet” (see food and eat it), but asks if you think he has lost weight, you are likely to plunge right into a tatemae answer that will tell him what he wants to hear. No unvarnished truth that he is obese and there is no difference from the last time you saw him, which would be the honne. So we do it in our cultures as well, but Japan has institutionalised it.

Being indirect, vague and circuitous are all admirable traits for Japanese communicators. Meanwhile, rude, unrepentant and bombastic Westerners—card-carrying members of the “tell it like it is” society—have trouble with what they see as duplicitous behaviour. What do you do when people won’t tell you the truth? How can you lead an organisation when you don’t know what is going on, and when bad news only leaks out when all efforts to hide it have failed? How can people be held accountable when you can’t count on them to adhere to the internal rules around transparency?

Lessons for the boss

It gets worse, of course, when you are the boss. Any boss, in almost any culture, will be getting served up some form of tatemae, simply because they are the boss. People tell you what they think you want to hear, as a means of sucking up to you for some possible advantage or to avoid your wrath if it all goes the wrong way. There are plenty of killed messengers in the Western world, and we have all learnt that that role is one to avoid whenever possible. Japan just takes the level of mastery up a couple of notches.

As the boss, if we can’t rely on those who work for us to speak up, how do we get to the bottom of what is going on? We have a few options available to us. Find a confidant who is plugged into what is really going on and can tell you the truth. But be careful of the “gaijin handler”, the English-speaking Japanese staff member who uses their communication facility to get close to power. They are often there to feed you what others want you to know, make sure you don’t find out too much, and keep an eye on you.

A better method is to be a great boss who people can trust and will not feel fear whenever they have to talk truth to power. You might imagine that is you already.

Wasn’t it you who erupted when the target achievement was poor or the deadline was missed or someone did something dumb? Everyone is watching the boss like a hawk. How does the boss react to bad news? What happens when the pressure is really on? Does that bon vivant boss become a monster? Keeping calm, no matter what, takes courage, patience and practice.

Building a personal relationship of trust with staff means making time available for them. The boss who can’t manage their time and can’t delegate is just a leaf being blown around by the wind of busyness. They can’t coach and can’t create real relationships because they don’t have the time. So make the time and get busy working on time management and delegation skills. Work on your communication skills.

Make the time to talk with the staff. Find out what motivates them and become their assistant to make what they want happen. Back them, praise them, support them and good things start to happen. Create staff members who feel empowered by you. Make them feel valued in a sincere way. Make time to communicate with them and build relationships.

Dr Greg Story is president of Dale Carnegie Training Japan.

Custom Media publishes BCCJ ACUMEN for the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© BCCJ ACUMEN

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

9 Comments
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The Japanese are famous for having learnt, over many centuries, how to get along with others. 

As though there were any society on Earth where that is not also true.

Say it with me now, kids: "Japan is great, but Japan is not special. You can love Japan without pretending everyone here is some kind of exotic space-alien."

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Say it with me now, kids: "Japan is great, but Japan is not special. You can love Japan without pretending everyone here is some kind of exotic space-alien."

Sometimes that's true, sometimes it's not. I find that in regards to the quote you pasted this comment in regards to, Japan actually is special that way in comparison to all the other countries I've lived in. Japanese people work together with much less conflict than everywhere else I've lived. That comes with it's own costs, but those costs are a different topic of conversation. The point here is that the Japanese actually are quite special when it comes to getting along.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Japanophiles praising Japan to the heavens, and locals loving it. Same old same old.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Japanophiles praising Japan to the heavens, and locals loving it. Same old same old.

Japan haters trying to pretend that Japan is no different from any other countries even it clearly is. Same old same old.

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

StrangerlandToday  11:28 am JST

I find that in regards to the quote you pasted this comment in regards to, Japan actually is special that way in comparison to all the other countries I've lived in. Japanese people work together with much less conflict than everywhere else I've lived.

With respect, I question that that is actually true, and the operative words my disagreement hinges on are 'live' and 'work' 'together'. Japanese people may exist in higher population densities than many westerners are used to, but that doesn't mean they're actually "living together" or "working together". Much of the quirks of Japanese culture seem to me to exist in order to create mental and social separation between people when physical separation isn't always possible.

The very concept that tatemae and honne are good examples of this. If a person is not sharing information with people who need to know it for fear of looking bad, I say they aren't actually "working together". They are working separately, sabotaging the collective group for the sake of sparing the person with bad news a personally uncomfortable moment.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

the operative words my disagreement hinges on are 'live' and 'work' 'together'. Japanese people may exist in higher population densities than many westerners are used to, but that doesn't mean they're actually "living together" or "working together".

I go to work every day with Japanese people, and almost all my neighbors (with the exception of one) are Japanese. We have neighborhood gatherings/sports days/events regularly (again, more than in any country I've ever lived in). I've worked in offices with all Japanese people.

They are most definitely living with and working with each other.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Meanwhile, rude, unrepentant and bombastic Westerners—card-carrying members of the “tell it like it is” society—have trouble with what they see as duplicitous behaviour.

I (think I) am none of those things. But I too have trouble with duplicitous (or to put it another way, deceitful and dishonest) behaviour.

The language is an admirable tool for this because it is excellent for being vague.

That's true. But is being vague desirable? Especially in a work environment? I can't begin to count the miscommunications and misunderstandings I've seen at my work place due to people being vague.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

*The Japanese are famous for having learnt, over many centuries, how to ignore others.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

@Dr.(?): “rude, unrepentant and bombastic foreigners”. That’s quite a wide swath of people who are being stereotyped without any proof.

Does the good Doctor have results from a well-controlled study of Japanese and “rude, unrepentant and bombastic foreigners?”

More central to the article, the gaijin bashing does nothing to answer the question posed. Poor writing.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

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