Intercultural communications and the launch of the UTS Japan Alumni Network

Last week I am very excited to say that with the support of many people, the University of Technology, Sydney launched the Japan Alumni. The event held at the Google offices in Ropponggi saw approximately 35 people come together, share a drink and their Australian experiences. Our topic of the evening was Intercultural Communications, we had Alumni share their experiences and were fortunate to have Jon Lynch from J-Global Institute of Collaboration give a short presentation on the topic.

Before moving to Japan, I had never really stopped to consider HOW BIG a difference there is in the work culture and the way we communicate. Sure, I knew a few things but was unclear how that played out in day to day scenarios. Australia is a highly multi-cultural environment, but it’s clear there is a dominant style in work culture and the way business communication occurs.

Jon Lynch defined the main differences as:

Japan: Australia:

  1. Polite 1. Friendly

  2. Correct 2. Clear

  3. Respectful 3. Persuasive

  4. Closed 4. Open

He also explained how Japanese business has the best teamwork in the world – but the unspoken rules take a long time to learn due to Japan’s ‘high context’ culture, so it needs to be made more inclusive for global business, so that Australians and others can join in.

The top 3 things that the Alumni spoke at length about on the night was:

Presenteeism vs Outcomes: Japan has one of the longest work days in the world, whilst Australia would consider a 9-hour work day standard practice (more if you’ve got a big project on) it would be also acceptable to leave at 5pm on a Friday night or come in early if you need to leave at a certain time. The biggest challenge here, is Australia predominantly views work value on output and outcomes. If you achieving good results, delivering what is required of you, supporting your team members when they need help or particularly busy then for the majority of us, ‘time at work’ is not scrutinised within reason.

In fact, we’re still behind the lead on this. Sweden has introduced a 6-hour work day, with commendable results on outcomes and better efficiency. Indeed, in Germany if you are unable to fit your work into a standard day, time after time, then you are seen as inefficient and less capable of doing your job. Contrast that with the Japanese environment, that strongly believes in being present at work demonstrates commitment to your job and your team. Busyness is worn as a badge of honour and the group becomes is more important than the individual as time at work soars.

Low Context vs High Context: This one can be tough! All other countries are lower context communication style than Japan. So what does it mean? In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid. Information is gathered from tone of voice, body language, use of fewer words, long pauses and shared cultural inferences. The onus is on politeness, measured responses and a trickle down of information from superiors. In lower context cultures such as Australia, communication is more direct, contains requirements such as who, what, why, when, where and less reliant on the ‘group’ dynamic. Moving between the two has its challenges and our members had developed their own tricks to assist them along the way.

Socratic vs. Confucian style learning: Socratic method of education and discussion means that Australians tend to hold more of a ‘everyone is equal’ view when learning and in their meeting style. The core purpose of meetings is to ‘analyse and decide’. Respectfully questioning, challenging, openly discussing issues and even interrupting the flow is seen as a thoughtful meeting and allowing everyone to speak if they so wish is seen as creating greater diversity of thought and better problem solving. Whilst in Japan, meetings tend to be larger and more one way flows of information from senior team members to the greater group. Meetings are seen as a way of ‘sharing information and one must not make open challenges in meetings. Both have their place and benefits, being agile enough to move between these styles is key.

Our members shared stories of Westerners coming into meetings, being too direct and ruining many months of slow and careful relationship building in Japan. Whilst on the flip side Australian’s shared experiences of walking away confused and frustrated that inaction occurred within the meeting and clarity of information was not apparent to them.

A networking event in Japan was not complete without some post-event drinks. The UTS Alumni headed off to the nearest bar and we got to discuss formality. This is something that makes an Australian’s mind boggle, moving from the extremely formal and hierarchical meeting, to do business in an Isakaya (food/bar) setting or even later when the world slides just a bit sidewards at the Karaoke can be difficult to understand. Our members discussed the ‘time, place, occasion’ modus operandi in Japan, and all appreciated the fun and interesting ways of mixing and building relationships this brings.

Generally, we agreed that Australians sit at the early evening end of the Isakaya setting. Believing in being an open, authentic, friendly and relaxed version of one-self at all occasions, and perhaps cautious of overstepping our thoughts of what professional conduct is regarded as. This has different meanings in different organisations and we all felt it wise to assess the situation over time first. However Australians (dependant on your personality style) also like being direct, explicit and passionate when needed and this can be misunderstood in a Japanese context.

So having said that, being at the opposite ends of the spectrum how does one survive the challenges? I think as an Australian in Japan or vice versa, one must seek to understand the different cultural practices and show appreciation for these (such as bowing, exchanging business cards correctly and properly addressing someone). Like all new work environments, you must ensure that you get to know your team members by observing and listening.

However, as an Australian, having grown up being taught to be your authentic and friendly self, where questioning is a sign of interest, being open and demanding of clarity – these traits are not going anywhere fast! I think all you can aim for is to talk about the differences in the styles with your teams, understand the styles and do you best to accommodate where possible.

The UTS Japan Alumni looks forward to bringing all Australian university graduates living and working in Japan (not just UTS) new events in November and December, stay tuned and join our Linked In group.

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MELANIE RAYMENT I  +44 (0)7494 936 787