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I just arrived in Japan last night and was met by colleagues in divisional headquarters. I and many of my visiting colleagues greeted our hosts / counterparts with handshakes and hugs as a sign of expected informality / friendship.

However, I and some of my US colleagues noticed our Japanese counterparts seemed hesitant and a distinct moment of confusion / unease was apparent. Our Japanese counterparts also seemed rather formal and reserved rather than warm and open. Our side had small talk and some laughter meant to break the ice / mingle between colleagues of varying hierarchy. The local colleagues seemed more nervous rather than more casual / open. Social conversation did not flow and interaction felt awkward. Ritualized norms seemed to be holding back local colleagues as if permission was needed.

Our visiting side had several varying levels of seniority from staff (non-management) all the way to senior management (think director and up). Colleagues were both men and women. In the US, informal greetings between colleagues as acknowledgment of familiarity and friendship is culturally rather normal.

Regarding hugging, I have seen colleagues hug at holiday parties and colleagues who have not met for a long time. I have hugged and received a brief hug from colleagues and it was no big deal, seen as a symbol of familiarity and good will building.


Questions:

  • As visitors not very familiar with local business norms in Japan, did our side commit a faux pas?
  • What is the expected greeting between colleagues in the local culture of Japan?
  • Is is advisable to apologize (risking worsening of situation due to cultural unfamiliarity), or better to ignore/move on?
  • What explains the unexpected reaction of local colleagues becoming more uptight rather than informal / authentic / casual upon using small talk , laughter , and ice breakers?
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7 Answers 7

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As visitors not very familiar with local business norms in Japan, did our side commit a faux pas?

Very likely yes, you did with the hugging, it would feel awkward even in Western Europe where I work. Physical contact in Japan is very uncommon. Even in the metro during rush hours you see that there is white gloved staff with the task of cramming people in the train, so that it can be less invasive as possible ("I am not pushing onto you, I am being pushed").

What is expected greeting between colleagues in the local culture of Japan?

A slight bow is the norm, without overdoing. A too deep bow might embarrass the receiver, as it puts the bowing person very low with respect to the person they are bowing to. Waving hands is also an ok, less formal way of greeting. In companies used to interact with westerners you will have no problems with a handshake.

Is is advisable to apologize (risking worsening of situation due to cultural unfamiliarity) or better to ignore?

As a foreigner in Japan you have a bit more leeway with observing social norms. Japanese are normally too polite to directly point it out when you are misconducting and make it looks like they are making you lose face. A direct apologize might be perceived as too strong, I would rather just change the behavior a bit more toward the local norms as a sign of good will. I remember that by only saying "good morning" in Japanese I made the entire office smile the first time I said it.

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    +1, and I second your point about hugging being unprofessional behaviour in Western Europe. I wouldn't need more than one hand to count the number of colleagues I've ever greeted with a hug, and they're all people I've been genuine friends with outside of work.
    – Graham
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 13:06
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    I can think of very few people from my profession that I would greet with a hug, and those few are people who either went out of their way to mentor me or, now that I'm the greybeard, who I've gone out of my way to mentor. And even with those people it isn't an automatic thing.
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 14:32
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    I'd consider it unprofessional behavior even in the USA, honestly. Like @Graham, the only coworkers I've met with a hug were people where I had a significant out-of-work relationship.
    – Shivers
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 7:58
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To play it safely, perhaps, you should go by the phrase 'When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do'. This phrase makes allusion to the relevance of adapting yourself to the customs, traditions, etc., of the people who are in a certain place or situation and behave like they do.

  1. As visitors not very familiar with local business norms in Japan, did our side commit a faux pas?

    You can try to discreetly ask the managers or directors of the local companies, they would offer you the best answer. Don't be too stressful about it. They know that you are from a different culture, and they won't take great offense about it.

  2. What is expected greeting between colleagues in the local culture of Japan?

    Here is some info: Business Meeting Etiquette in Japan for Foreigners.)

    When greeting a potential client for the first time it is not customary to shake hands in Japanese culture. The preferred form of greeting is bowing (unless your client offers you their hand to shake, of course). Correct form requires you to bow from the hip with a straight back. Men should place their hands by their sides while women clasp their hands in front. Avoid putting your hands in your pockets as this implies a lack of interest.

    However, nowadays, when meeting with foreigners in a business context, Japanese people may also shake hands in a professional manner.

    Also, I agree with a comment by user @Keshlam that "Even in the US, unsolicited hugs are often considered invasive".

  3. Is is advisable to apologize (risking worsening of situation due to cultural unfamiliarity) or better to ignore?

    Well, if you feel that it is necessary to apology, then you can probably talk to their managers and figure out a nice and easy way to offer an apology without making the situation more complicated.

Again, they understand that you are from a different culture and mean to be professional in the way that your own culture recommends. So, they won't take great offense. Don't worry too much about it.


PS: Maybe, it would have been more helpful if your company had given you and your team some quick and informal notes on how to greet and interact with the Japanese teams before the trip.

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    That last repeated point is really important. People tend to assume that people from other cultures will react to their cultural missteps with bafflement and outrage, rather than understanding and indulgence. The important thing -- EVERYWHERE -- is respect, as evinced by courtesy, congeniality, and a willingness to adapt. Asking questions and listening to the answers ticks all those boxes and is a great strategy.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 12:35
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    @Sneftel before trips to Japan (business) and India (pleasure) I made a point of looking for guidance to read on customs and etiquette. In the former case it was on the recommendation of a trusted and experienced colleague, while I was a new graduate. We all need colleagues like that
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 12:51
  • @Sneftel While it's true that people everywhere accept to give some more leeway to foreigners, especially in the very beginning, I wouldn't be surprised if the cultural clash sets things off in a bad way. Of course this may vary from place to place, but it may well be a wasted chance to do a good first impression.
    – Simone
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 9:00
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    @Job_September_2020 the Flat Earth example seems hyperbolic, so I will not argue with that (Magellan, the Greek, and many many others have proved this to be a fact millennia ago, quite different from etiquette on certain country on present times)... regardless, I see you edited the question into better shape :) so we are all good. Thanks for citing and editing. (as a side note, do check my last comment about Rome, the link, and you will se that your first paragraph is exactly the same as the one linked, starting from "refers to...". I'll paraphrase that bit if you don't mind).
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 20:12
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    (pruning comments in a while)
    – DarkCygnus
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 20:12
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The faux pas has nothing to do with Japan per se. Any time you go to another culture even a local one you're not familiar with you should check on basic greeting and politeness customs.

Your faux pas was using your ideas of what is correct on others. In their own country, which is even more disrespectful and inappropriate.

In most cultures I know in a professional setting you have only managed to look unprofessional and unorganised/unprepared at best. Not a great start. There is a mindset I have noticed that it doesn't matter, they'll understand and forget. And, yes, they will understand, but what they'll understand from it is probably a lot different from what you think, and they won't forget. First impressions are the ones that stick the most.

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    Fully agree. I'll just add that the OP's company acted as though they were the hosts, and not guests at someone's home. A little humility goes a long way…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 18, 2023 at 20:17
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    @Mari-LouA yes, and you're not doing your compatriots a favour either, in future they may well be tarred with the same brush before they even get their foot in the door.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 2:54
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    @Mari-LouA I read the "you're" in Kilisi's comment as refering to the people in the OP's company, rather than to you (which is how I think you interpreted it).
    – Player One
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 1:51
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    @Mari-LouA yes, I didn't mean you, I meant the OP.... my English isn't very good :-(
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 3:21
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    @seg I disagree, because I see it from the other side and can confirm that contracts have been lost and other things over things like this. Just because a native is smiling and courteous, doesn't mean they haven't just decided you're an &^%$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 21:31
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I just arrived in Japan last night and was met by colleagues in divisional headquarters. I and many of my visiting colleagues greeted our hosts / counterparts with handshakes and hugs as a sign of expected informality / friendship.

Typical Japanese business etiquette would simply be bows all around. Additionally, most Japanese are aware of Western business etiquette involving handshake greetings and would have been absolutely prepared for that; the hugs would likely be an unexpected curveball, however.

I wouldn't worry about it too much, it was probably immediately written off as a matter of Americans culturally being overly friendly - no need to call more attention to it with any sort of major apology.

(Imagine some Italian business group flying in to your headquarters, and as your team is holding out handshakes they get pulled in for a quick kiss on both cheeks; while you'd maybe think "That was weird." you'd brush it off as a simple cultural difference easily enough.)


Our side had small talk and some laughter meant to break the ice / mingle between colleagues of varying hierarchy. The local colleagues seemed nervous rather than becoming more casual / open. Social conversation did not flow and interaction felt awkward. A distinct perception difference was apparent.

Generally speaking, Japanese culture (like many Asian cultures) is more deferential to hierarchy than most Western cultures (especially American culture). You might only see yourself as a rung or two above some of these individuals in the hierarchy, but for them the perception might feel more akin to an entry-level manager interacting with Jeff Zuckermusk. "What do I say so as not to embarrass myself and my boss?" "They are acting very informal, but would my boss see it as unprofessional if I acted just as informally in return?"

On top of that, it is quite likely that some may not be extremely confidant of their English speaking skills. Perhaps they brushed up a few phrases relating to typical business interactions and whatnot but are clamming up a bit in the unstructured casual conversation.


I think you came in assuming that you could do typical Western "icebreaker" stuff only to find that the Japanese are more reserved "dip a toe in first" types.

From what I've heard of Japanese business culture, it would generally have been better form to be a bit more uptight/professional up front and more gradually ease into the casual over time (with most of that informal icebreaking coming through when out with the group for dinner and drinks).

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  • Who's Jeff Zuckermusk?
    – Clockwork
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 10:06
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    @Clockwork It's a stand-in meant to more generically represent billionaire CEOs of the likes of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk.
    – DotCounter
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 14:42
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Your greatest faux pas was in not doing any research beforehand, then just rushing in blindly, expecting everybody to do things your way. You should have at least googled it a bit. If you work in an international company, there are probably people you already know who have been before, or even Japanese colleagues working in the US.
You wouldn't walk into a huge deal with a bank/oil refinery/starship project without the smallest amount of prior research, would you?

Japanese business colleagues, as you discovered, are not really into hugging people they've never met.
I hug some of the people I've known for 30 years - but still not everybody, even the ones I truly consider friends as opposed to colleagues. It's just not a 'thing' in Japan & makes people awkward if you misjudge it. Always better to play 'under' than 'over' in Japan.

It would have been safer to lead with the 'great business card swap'. This is standard practise in Japanese business - something else you should have googled first.
There's a deal of etiquette involved in this but people will mind considerably less if you attempt it & don't quite get it right than not try at all.
There's a good description at Japan Living Guide - Business Card Etiquette in Japan – How to Exchange Business Cards.
Before I went for the first time I had my cards printed up double-sided, English one side, Japanese the other.

One other thing that no-one tells you is that no matter what you do, you will get bowing wrong. You could live there a decade & still not appreciate the subtlety.
This, however, is known almost instinctively by all Japanese - Westerners just can't get the bowing right - so play it down. Bow slightly less than you feel appropriate, but make it a clear action that you're paying attention to, don't just nod your head like you're greeting the pizza delivery guy.

As to apologising - I'd just reel back your enthusiasm instead & try harder to conform to their norms rather than yours. You can relax these things as you get to know people - but that won't be in a week or even a month.
Try to organise going out for a beer after work, something that doesn't qualify as a formal dinner, best with some of the more junior staff. People are all different, of course, but the Japanese cultural norm is not as relaxed as the US. Some colleagues will lighten up noticeably once outside the work environment, but I'd still save the hugs for when you get home.

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    "don't just nod your head like you're greeting the pizza delivery guy" Thanks, that's the bit I wanted to ask about
    – Clockwork
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 10:08
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    Yeah. It's very formal & we will just never get it properly, but looking like you mean it is a really good start. Pause to do it as its own action, not just on your way past or whilst doing something else - unless it's the offering of the business card.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 10:37
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    To me, it wasn't an unexpected reaction. Your 'ice-breaker' made everyone uncomfortable - on their home turf. That's going to take a lot of living down, on both sides. As it's a position I've never been in, the only thing I can suggest is you dial it right back & see if things eventually recover. The 'going out for a beer' thing might allow for enough relaxation to perhaps mention it, out of the working environment, which - if you read the situation correctly - might allow you an unofficial apology which could later be passed around behind your backs sometime over the next few days
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 7:10
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    @Anthony "how would you assess the unexpected reaction" What I'm understanding out of this is: you are surprised by the way they reacted, because from your perspective, in the culture in which you are used to being, hugging is perfectly normal. Thing is, different culture really brings different standard, and they didn't live in the same kind of environment you're used to, so their "normality" differs from yours. I'm thinking if you were to receive guests who had "uncommon habits" from what you're used to, chances are you might feel uneasy but would still try to keep it cool out of respect.
    – Clockwork
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 8:03
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    @Anthony - You still seem to be struggling with the idea, calling it 'excessive' is only by your norms. It's not excessive there, it's normal. Culturally, what you did was the social equivalent of walking straight into the kitchen & p*ssing in the sink. Your colleagues were shocked & horrified by what you did.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 14:19
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I wouldn't generally be discomforted by a hug from a colleague, but it's very exceptional for it to actually occur.

To do so with (presumably) unfamiliar contacts at a business meeting seems completely beyond the pale.

There's a whiff of the idea that perhaps you'd had too many refreshments on a long flight.

I think I'd let the issue go - I'm sure your counterparts will have seen the good intentions and will write it off as an inter-cultural faux pas - and simply stick to handshakes in future.

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    "I wouldn't", as in, "I, as a native Japanese professional with knowledge of the local culture, wouldn't"?
    – pipe
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 0:10
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    @pipe, no "I, as an English-speaking Westerner like the OP, wouldn't"! My point is that this isn't normal behaviour towards business contacts even in the OP's native culture.
    – Steve
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 10:54
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When in doubt, be formal. This extends to all aspects of life.

I've hugged colleagues on only two occasions: as a farewell at their retirement party and as console after a tragedy. Additionally, I knew them well enough to know they're receptive to hugs.

This website has some good information on handshake etiquette, https://www.commisceo-global.com/blog/how-to-shake-hands-with-the-japanese

Yes, you goofed up. I doubt it's detrimental but if you have a good relationship with one of them then you can ask for their opinion on the situation. Don't rush to try and "fix" anything because you'll probably make things worse.

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    "When in doubt, be formal. This extends to all aspects of life." - sorry, it's not that easy. There are plenty of situations where you can be "too formal", creating the impression that you are actively trying to distance yourself, either horizontally or vertically. Commented Jul 23, 2023 at 12:33
  • @O.R.Mapper I suggested formal not impassive or apathetic.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 17:59

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