Business Meets Culture:
Understanding "Yes" in East Asia
The United States and Japan established their first sister city relationship in 1955 between St. Paul, Minnesota and Nagasaki, Japan. The goal was to promote friendship, cooperation, and people-to-people diplomacy between the two cities. Quickly cities across the United States developed their own sister city relationships with Japanese cities in the hopes of promoting the same values.
Today, many of the sister city relationships continue to prosper. However, managing the relationships has not always been easy.
I sat down with Shelly Parini, past business and industry affairs manager at the City of Gresham, who helped oversee the sister city alliance between Gresham, Oregon and Ebetsu, Japan in the late 1990s. When she came on board, the relationship was on the rocks. The two cities had competing visions for the future and communication related to cultural differences made it difficult to find a shared consensus.
While many sister city alliances primarily utilize cultural and educational exchanges, Shelly helped reinvent the relationship by adding business and economic development ties.
Initiating the new business strategy wasn’t easy as it deviated from the cities' traditional relationships. It was further challenged by local businesses' past frustration in dealing with Japan.
Never the less, she persisted.
In the end, learning how to improve communication worked. The new trade relation opened doors for a local coffee company and resulted in renewed pledge of mutual support between the sister cities in 2000.
Business Culture in Context
To gain a better understanding of some of the cultural competencies Americans need to have when doing business with Japan, take a deeper look at the word "yes".
In Japanese the word that most closely resembles the word "yes" is hai. In many cases the word hai does mean the same as the English word "yes". For example, if a waiter asks if you want the menu, and you respond with hai, then it will produce the same result as if you answered with the English "yes".
However, hai is often used differently from the direct meaning of "yes" in business contexts. For example, a Japanese businessman may respond with hai after being told by another Japanese businessman that their product is the best in quality and price.
This is because hai is being used as a cultural filler. Its purpose is not to show full agreement, but to show that the person is listening and cares about what you have to say.
Because of this cultural difference, it can be easy to see how an American businessman could become confused by a conversation with their Japanese counterpart. After all, if they agree that the American product is the best in both quality and price, why wouldn't they sign the deal?
In Japan it is seen as impolite to tell someone "no" directly. Even if a person disagrees, or has a different perspective, they may not make that apparent.
Cultural cues that are easy for people in East Asia to pick up can be difficult for people from a traditional American or Western background to understand.
A businessman from East Asia may tell a potential Western partner that they want to work with them "next time". While East Asia business professionals may be able to understand the true meaning behind "next time" (which usually means "no"), a Western businessman may take this phrase literally - creating a potential big cultural misunderstanding.
What about China?
American entrepreneurs will likely encounter similar problems with potential Chinese partners. In Mandarin Chinese, there is no word for "yes". The closest word that exists is duì which more closely translates to "correct".
Unlike in Japanese business culture, Chinese business customs can be more direct. This usually happens when a Chinese party has a strong interest in the other party knowing exactly what their intent is. American businesses should not expect straight forward answers from their Chinese counterparts and be prepared that direct answers usually only appear after significant frustration from the Chinese side.
Both the United States and East Asia have a lot to gain through shared cooperation and understanding. In recent years the world has become increasingly globalized which has created more opportunities for American and East Asian entrepreneurs to work together. Americans need to be aware of cultural differences between the US and East Asia that may lead to potentially significant misunderstandings. Americans should take the time to understand foreign business practices in order to better prepare themselves for business schemes with East Asia.
About the author:
Alexander graduated with his bachelor's degree in political science from Portland State University. He is a master's student studying international relations at Peking University. He is currently based out of Saigon, Vietnam.