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[content_box title=”Cultural Difference behind Simple Words” icon=”fa-check-circle” image=”” image_width=”35″ image_height=”35″ link=”home/cross-culture” linktarget=”” linktext=”Back to Cultural Views”]

Learning a language is definitely the gateway to understand its culture. Although we can learn “faux pas” particular to that culture in our native language, it does not necessarily secure that we will have proper interaction and communication with the people in that culture.

Still, it’s a long way to get to understand different culture in its native language, and there is a pitfall of “taking what they say in our cultural context, not in their cultural context,” which may become the beginning of misunderstanding the people in different culture. Let me try to explain about this pitfall by using a Japanese word “hai.”

If you think “hai” always means “yes” in the English definition of yes, it could become the beginning of misunderstanding the Japanese people, especially in terms of business relations.

hai_yesImagine that you are in the first business meeting in Japan for sales promotion. While you talk in front of the procurement group, your Japanese counterpart keeps uttering hai” in Japanese. You know “hai” means “yes” in English, and so you gain a little confidence in your talk and keep talking, while your counterpart keep saying “hai” again. But somewhere down the line, you might find yourself uncomfortable because their only reaction is “hai”. So you decide to put in a joke in order to inject warmth into your talk…, which¬† usually is not a good idea.

The Japanese word, “hai” does not necessarily mean “yes”. It quite often means “I’m listening”, which only implies attentiveness with little implication of affirmation or agreement. But, it does imply “I respect you.”

hai_unIf the Japanese counterpart was not listening to you without respect, he would have used “un” instead of “hai,” just like when he listens to his subordinates. Although these two words mean exactly the same, the very strict rules apply in choosing the right one for the occasion, especially in the workplace. Since Japanese people choose the right word unconsciously in everyday life, if one dare to use the wrong one in the workplace, it will be immediately regarded as ill-willed and the person gets in a big trouble.

Use of “uh huh” in Japan is Precarious

Now, here comes the complicating part. The problem with using the English word “uh huh” while listening to the Japanese counterparts is that you use the exact same word while listening to your subordinates. If they notice that you talk to your subordinates in the manner as you talk to them, it is now their turn to start feeling uncomfortable. They might even think that you have an attitude problem, because you didn’t use “yes,” instead of “uh huh,” just like they use “hai” instead of “un.”

It is, of course, they are taking your English word “uh huh” in the Japanese cultural context, which is the cause of the problem.

When a foreign business starts to deal with an established Japanese business, chances are there is at least one person who communicates in English well with their team, who will serve as a window. There shouldn’t be any problem in communicating through the window, however, when you are in Japan and talk to the entire team, it’s not a good idea to talk to the entire team¬†just like your are talking to your liaison.