What do you need to consider in your sales communication if you are an international professional working between East Asia and the US? What are the main cultural differences US and Japan to think about in sales communication (South Korea, Taiwan & Mainland China have similar trends)?

This post is based on a discussion I had with Allison Yeager in Episode 8 of International Expansion Explained, and summarises the main points. You can skip to the bottom of this post if you’d rather just watch the whole discussion again on YouTube.

A Quick Intro of Allison Yeager

Allison Yeager headshot - cultural differences us and japan for international expansion explained

Allison is the principal consultant of Bridge Intercultural Consulting. She is a cross-cultural communication consultant, international business and market entry advisor, and executive coach, focusing on helping foreign clients improve individual and organizational success in the US market. Although she works with companies around the world, Allison’s speciality is in bridging cultural differences between businesses in the US and East Asia.

Incidentally (today’s totally random fact) we share the same birthday.

Early interest in other cultures

Allison has been interested in helping people from overseas fit into the US ever since she was at school, and whilst her career path to where she is today might not have been strictly linear, all of her previous experiences go to help understand how she can bridge the gaps between cultures today.

Having started out teaching English to Japanese executives who had been posted to the US, Allison realised that linguistic ability was just one piece of the puzzle and that for those clients to be effective communicators of their products or ideas then more needed to be adjusted.

Cultural differences US and Japan mean that not only presentations need to be adjusted or sales techniques, but also that the whole approach to doing business needs to be adapted to the new culture.

Why does Culture Matter in International Sales Communication?

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone behaved strangely by your standards? Maybe they arrived late or much earlier than the rest of you, perhaps they wouldn’t stop talking or maybe they didn’t want to participate in a vote on a decision?

Well, that kind of “observed difference” is often due to cultural differences. In order to communicate effectively with international partners, especially when you are trying to sell something, then you need to understand how the other person is receiving your information.

It’s normal in domestic sales to tailor your sales message for your audience, however this is often overlooked for some reason when working internationally. And in this case you don’t just need to consider individual preferences but also to think about the whole cultural upbringing and environment that a person has been surrounded by.

“But I’ve seen companies without cultural empathy succeed”

Yep, so have I.

But think how much time, energy and resources they would have saved if they had made the effort to learn HOW to effectively present to people in the country they are doing business in. Would you rather reach $2 million in sales in 5 years or $20 million?

Disclaimer

A disclaimer up front because I don’t want anyone to be offended:

  1. Yes, I know that we can’t generalise and not everyone from a country is the same
  2. I’m also fully aware that there are differences between cultures in East Asia – for the purposes of our discussion we looked in more detail at Japan, but many things will apply elsewhere too.
  3. Remember that cultural differences US and Japan are today’s example, but we could do a similar exercise for almost any 2 countries in the world
quote by Audre Lorde about cultural differences

Misconceptions

There are often misconceptions about international expat postings. These succeed (or fail) not because of English (or other) language ability, but mostly due to an inability to assimilate fast enough in order to get the job done which you have been sent to do. See also my post about expat challenges here.

So it’s not enough for the company to simply send the person with the best language skills to do the job – a wider range of skills are needed. Coincidentally, one of the main reasons I started out working with Asia, was also because my English language skills were stronger than those of my colleagues (tongue slightly in cheek there as I’m a UK passport holder based in Austria). I was used to adapting to different cultures, but it was still a steep learning curve at first.

Simply having American/German/Japanese… (insert your origin of choice) products and being able to speak English/Japanese/Mandarin… (choose your language) will not automatically enable you to sell in your target market and it’s almost a kind of arrogance to believe otherwise.

Too many companies send staff abroad with extremely little preparation other than basic language skills and are surprised when they crash and burn – it’s an absolute minority though who recognise that this is due to a lack of cultural skills.

What are some of the characteristics of a Japanese vs US presentation style (or other East Asian countries)?

Before we talk in detail about presentations, let’s just go back to the school system and cultural norms for a minute.

In Europe and the US, we’re taught in the Socratic tradition meaning that critical thought and debate is welcomed. In Japan, as in most other parts of Asia schools and society are influenced by the Confucian tradition. In the Confucian tradition, teachers are not questioned (I’m generalising hugely here) and society is more collectivist so independence of thought has traditionally not been rewarded.

Being Humble

Chances are that any Japanese executive making a presentation in your company has had it dinned into him by his parents and grandparents, that he needs to be humble and shouldn’t try to act above himself.

What is common politeness in Japan, may come across as uncertainty, and worse still weakness, in the US. It’s really hard to escape your cultural upbringing to move away from this, especially if you are also nervous about speaking in a foreign language.

Credentials up front

It’s very typical to build your perceived authority by having several slides at the front of a Japanese presentation detailing academic achievements and who you may have studied under. This rather long introduction provides context for what the speaker is about to present.

It’s often even included in presentations when the presenter has already been introduced by an event organiser (ie. when credentials have effectively already been established).

For an American listener, this may just come across as a waste of time as they’re not interested in hearing such details. The individual who is speaking will only become interesting as an individual once it’s been established if the product is interesting for them or not.

This extremely transactional approach feels pushy and plain rude though to the Japanese.

Text Heavy Slides

I’m really not sure why, but East Asians tend to make really text heavy slides and then read all of the content. Sample below from a Taiwanese presentation I was in this morning and again it annoys the listeners in Europe or the US who have been schooled to either use just an image or minimal text on presentation slides.

East Asian and Japanese powerpoint presentation style is heavy on text

The above isn’t an especially bad example, it’s just one that struck me whilst I was preparing for this post.

Purely from a linguistic perspective, I personally always check figures – Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese speakers are used to using a unit for 10000, which can make it complicated for them to present sales figures. You REALLY don’t want to have misunderstandings about a couple of 0s when talking about figures – make sure you have the same understanding. However, if you’re going to check with someone’s figures, just take care to do it in a way that preserves face.

Tempo

If you are presenting to a home audience, it’s much easier to pick up those subtle signals that indicate you should either pick up the speed or supply more context in order to get your point across. That’s hard to do in a foreign environment and takes time to learn, especially if you are already using a huge amount of mental energy to manage a presentation and meeting in a second or third language.

Meetings – Japanese Negotiation Styles vs American

Here I’d like to state first off that Japan is probably THE highest context culture in the world and the US is one of the lowest. Consequently, it can be frustrating for Americans to work together with East Asians as they feel like the Asian side are being deliberately obtuse and intransparent.

As a melting pot society, Americans have learnt to be extremely to the point. This can make them seem pushy and brash to especially Japanese business partners (but also to Europeans). This extremely direct style may come across as primitive and unsophisticated to an Asian.

Japanese or Korean society is far more homogenous and people grow up learning to “read the air” and understand what is being said between the lines of any discussion – there’s little need for the level of directness that arises when you live in a society with many people from extremely differing backgrounds and languages.

People seem to forget there’s a right way to do things in a certain situation and a certain culture. It’s all relative.

Allison Yeager

Relationships and Giving Face

These are probably the 2 biggest concepts that are difficult to get right in international business. How to build good relationships (how much time do I need to invest before we can talk about business) and also how to give face.

For Japanese people, it’s vital to build the relationship up front. That includes discussion of what are seen in the US to be overly personal topics such as family status or hobbies. The fact that these play an integral role in relationship building in East Asia, mean that in such business relationships both sides are permanently off-balance. This also takes time.

In the US business tends to be built more on the purely transactional than the relational. If you have a product or service that can solve a problem for me, then I am willing to invest the time to learn more about you as a person.

The concept of giving face exists to varying extents in every culture. Basically, just don’t make people feel or look small and/or stupid.

Socrates vs Confucius again

The Americans are going to come into your meeting and be open to discuss everything that comes onto the table, perhaps even close a deal. Each participant of the meeting will contribute to the debate whether or not their opinions are in line with those of the most senior manager.

The Japanese will have discussed their point of view amongst themselves prior to the meeting and will be looking to further the relationship with their American partners. Their aim will be to achieve consensus – after all you can’t be expecting to sell something before you’ve built a relationship (you know, eaten together, drunk together & of course potentially also did some karaoke).

To the Americans, there is sufficient relationship there for them to buy, for the Japanese it probably needs more time. Neither side is wrong but the concept of relationships works so differently in each case that the other may not even recognise it for what it is.

The Japanese may be shocked at the way that the Americans interrupt them, whilst the US side is perhaps frustrated at the lack of a clear “yes” or “no” decision from the Japanese (because they perhaps want to refer it further up the ladder and come back to them later).

Asking Questions

For a Japanese sales person looking to sell into the US, it can be really difficult to openly verbally question your counterparts. However you need to learn to drill down in order to get to the point of being able to sell.

It’s hard to learn to be as direct and open as possible in communication, even if your head knows that that is what’s necessary. Learning to say no also takes time and practice. Disagreeing with the person you’re talking to isn’t a bad thing, but losing a deal because you didn’t have mutually understandable levels of communication is.

For the US American, you have to learn that your Japanese counterpart isn’t going to volunteer more info to you than the answer to the question you asked. So when you don’t ask the right questions, you probably won’t get the answers you need.

Role of Silence

Never underestimate silence – it can be extremely powerful. In the “western world” we tend to associate silence from whoever we’re talking to as a really negative sign that we said something wrong. The knee jerk reaction is to talk to fill the silence, which can seem childish to an Asian listener.

However, your Asian counterpart might just be thinking how to answer without costing either of you face… it’s not necessarily a negative reaction so as a European or American practice allowing such pauses to occur without feeling the need to fill them.

I’ve seen this used as an effective negotiation technique where the Chinese side made a reply to an offer and then shut up. The Germans they were talking to were not thinking as strategically and rushed to fill the gap with a compromise proposal – they actually needn’t have given that ground, but the automatic reaction was to talk into the space.

International Negotiations - japanese negotiation styles vs american

Working with an Intermediary

This can be a good solution for companies to help meeting participants understand what’s REALLY being said (when they say x they actually mean y) and provide a bridging solution. Negotiations can be more successful and reach a faster mutually beneficial conclusion with this kind of support. I was lucky enough to have this kind of person helping me when I first started working in China.

Resources for Learning about Cultural Specifics

To learn the baseline of various cultures as well as learning about different frameworks then books provide a great basis, and I have a couple of articles on here:

Another classic would be Fons Trompenaars Riding the Waves of Culture.

However culture and language change so quickly that it’s also worth looking at academic articles as well as social media sources such as Reddit if you want to learn which questions are really topical.

It’s worth getting outside perspectives in order to be able to grow and learn.

Cultural Differences US and Japan can be learnt

Yes, you can learn how to behave in different cultural environments, however you need to accept that this is a process and not just something you easily learn from a book. You have to also spend time practicing the application of what you’ve learnt, and that can be scary.

Be kind to your business partners who are visiting you at home. It sucks a huge amount of energy to do business in a foreign language, and that’s before you’ve got the stress of making a presentation or behaving in a way that is literally foreign to you.

It takes a certain level of trust to really believe that going out there and behaving in a way that would make your Japanese or Korean grandma turn in her grave at your rudeness, will actually be perceived as you behaving like a strong leader in the USA. You have to get comfortable with being rude and that’s hard for most people to implement.

For an American it’s also hard to just “tone it down” if visiting Asia and not to come across as brash and unpleasant (of course not for everybody – remember my disclaimer earlier…).

Remember communication has only taken place if the message you want to “send” is also “received” by whoever you are talking to, so you need to talk in a way they can understand & I don’t just mean language but all the other points we’ve looked at in this post.

Even when you understand the concepts it’s hard to implement and sometimes for sure you’ll make mistakes. However working to minimise those will lead to more effective communications and better business results for both you and your partners.

Full Interview – International Expansion Explained episode 8

You can find the full interview with Allison here:

If you would like to get in touch with Allison for further discussions, you can do so here:

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4 Comments

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