Ii/ii. National Culture, International Business Strategy and Common Misunderstandings Between The East and The West

It's dreadful what little things lead people to misunderstand each other.

- L.M. Montgomery -

In the previous article we’ve briefly explored the theory behind social connections, harmony, consensus in the Confucian-Asian cluster: relationships founded on the principles of Confucianism tend to be characterised by continuity and reciprocation, hierarchy and preservation of the social order are of the utmost importance, “right” and “wrong” are defined according to the impact a certain event has on the people involved…what does all of the above mean in practice though, what are the main differences between the Eastern and the Western approach to business, what cultural/societal aspects are most likely to lead to misunderstandings and inefficiencies?

Let’s consider for example corporate mergers and acquisitions scenarios: an article published by the South China Morning Post in 2016 [1] claimed that, according to a Baker & McKenzie study, “There’s a greater chance of a merger ending successfully if the acquirer is American or European than if they’re Japanese. Japanese buyers tended to develop blueprints for the entire project and were less likely to correct course after the project was launched as it could be seen as a sign of incompetence. Conversely, the method often adopted among US and European companies embodies a spirit of ‘launch first, find solutions later’ [see post about Unilever Japan for additional insight on this particular point] that allows them to act swiftly and set a more engaging tone for the transformation. This approach emphasises rapid, aggressive change while recognising that unnecessary delays can cause disruption and lost momentum.”.

Interestingly enough, another article published by the Japan Times in the same year [2] quoted former Japanese politician Shizuka Kamei stating that “Japanese companies negotiate slowly because everyone from junior managers to major shareholders must approve a deal, in keeping with the national tradition of consensus.” [Note: the Japanese society is highly collectivist, while the North American culture is characterised by a strong individualistic orientation].

The sense of unity and the social consensus the Japanese seem to hold in high regard are often misunderstood by non-Japanese nationals: to the question “For those of you who work for Japanese companies, what are some of the best or worst things about it?” (appeared on Japan Today), foreign workers replied by listing endless meetings, lack of individual responsibility, the interaction with “robotic” or “fake” colleagues among the major issues.

Responses include:

- “[…] dealing with rules that meant everyone sunk or swam depending on the strength of the company, rather than the strength of their own individual work, sucked”;

- “Very tough to get decisions pushed through in a timely manner”;

- “The friendly greetings, chit chat, laughs and happy smiles that you knew were fake”;

- “[…] meetings which very rarely produce anything constructive”.

One poster in particular observed that “…the reason for these long meetings is the fault of their indirect communication style; so getting things discussed, decided and accomplished takes easily twice as long as a western company. Furthermore the culture is very passive aggressive, so it's very hard to tell what people are really thinking, if they are being genuinely nice to you or if they are subtly being mean. Also, don't expect honesty if it jeopardizes group cohesion; there is a saying in Japan uso-mo-houben, which basically means thata lie is justified sometimes if it will help keep things stable. Any criticism (even positive criticism) will be seen as negativity, and will make you a pariah among your co-workers... because the most important thing in Japanese business is not efficiency, not quality, not a good outcome, but rather group cohesion. So why is group cohesion so important? Well because Japanese people do everything as a group”.

To fully understand and contextualize these (biased and mostly incorrect) conclusions, we need to consider that:

- the Japanese - like the majority of Asian cultures - is a high-context [3] culture (characterized therefore by an indirect communication style, by a decision making-process often based on feelings and emotional factors, by a preference for accuracy and thoroughness over speed and efficiency);

- what Westerners tend to perceive as hypocrisy, is a representation of the “social face” coupled with the moral duty to save someone else’s face and to preserve social harmony (concepts explained in the previous article);

- group cohesion is more important than a good outcome because most Confucian-Asian cultures are not only collectivist, but do also classify as shame-cultures [4] (“In true shame-oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation.” [5] ) and are shaped by the Confucian principles of diligence, propriety, social order (“[…] when the superiors are in harmony with each other and the inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevail.)” [6]

Now, while this article focuses specifically on the Japanese environment and not on Confucian Asia as a whole, it is important to remember that all the cultures in this cluster share some common traits that set them aside from the majority of Western societies: the previously mentioned collectivist mindset, shame as a tool of social control, indirect communication style, but also a distinctive “being orientation” [7], as opposed to the “doing orientation” that’s predominant in the Anglo- and in the Germanic clusters.

“Doing” cultures are structured and prioritize tasks, self-interest, the importance of getting things done and of being productive; “being” cultures, on the other hand, tend to be more flexible and to place a greater emphasis on human relationships, on tradition, on group well-being.

To conclude, I leave you with an enlightening - although slightly unconventional - example of the Japanese extreme thoughtfulness and restrain when it comes to personal interactions. Notice how anger and disappointment are not openly expressed in order to not upset others (see also the reference to the Korean concept ofkibun mentioned in the previous article), and connect the dots: the principle behind a candid street interview concerned with “private life behaviour” is the same principle of moral relativity that influences workplace dynamics (social harmony is more important than “truth”).




[1] South China Morning Post - Online:


[2] The Japan Times - Online: 


[3] Hall Edward T. (1959).“The Silent Language”. New York: Doubleday

[4] Herbert R. (1946). “The chrysanthemum and the sword : patterns of Japanese culture”. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co.

[5] Hiebert, Paul G. (1985). ”Anthropological Insights for Missionaries”. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House

[6] Blocker, H. Gene & Starling, Christopher L. (2001). “Japanese Philosophy”. State University of New York Press

[7] Hofstede, G. J., Pedersen, P., & Hofstede, G. (2002). ”Exploring culture: Exercises, stories, and synthetic cultures”. Yarmouth, Me: Intercultural Press

Hand vector created by makyzz - www.freepik.com

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