Sasshi: The Asian Art of Business Communication

Let's say you want to go to the show. But you don't want to make your spouse feel that he has to do what you want.

Therefore, you don't say: "I'd like to go to the show". Instead, you say: "Would you like to go the show?" He says "No." And you get angry because he is so inconsiderate.

That's appears to be the problem in East-West communications.

Asians dislike the Western habit of being very direct in saying what you want. They find it bossy and rude and prefer to make oblique references to what they want.

In Japan, only very senior managers can directly tell their employees what they should be doing. Other people have to signal their desires, vaguely.

A Japanese manager working in Australia may address employees for half an hour with platitudes about the company.

After the first 10 minutes, the Australians will stop paying attention. But any Japanese in the audience, will still be listening because they will know, “this is a senior person from Tokyo, we must pay attention”.

Towards the end of the speech, the manager will give a subtle indication about what he expects from the employees. The Japanese will get it, but the Australians won't.

In fact, Japanese managers are so fond of vagueness that the Japanese have a word for guessing what the boss wants: sasshi.

In the reverse scenario, when a Westerner manages Japanese, the latter will be as startled by being told directly what to do as they would be by abuse. They may understand what the manager wants, but they will hate him for it.

These cultural traits are learned at a very early age.

In North America, if a child is making a lot of noise singing, the father might tell the child to pipe down.

In Asia, however, the father might say “how well you sing a song”. At first, the child might be pleased,

but it would soon dawn on him that something else might have been meant and the child would try being quieter or not singing at all.

A gentle approach? Or, one bound to drive you crazy? You decide.

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