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To Slurp or Not to Slurp

Business Etiquette

Know the culture: Anything from refusing an invitation to sing to leaving your chopsticks stuck upright in a bowl of rice could be taken as an insult.

In Japan, and many Pacific Rim countries, culture and business are deeply intertwined, creating all sorts of minefields for the unprepared executive. Anything from refusing an invitation to sing to leaving your chopsticks stuck upright in a bowl of rice—an ominous symbol—could be taken as an insult. In business centers like Tokyo, a deal might depend on your ability to make it through dinner while minding your manners.

Experts say: Know the basic rules of etiquette. Some fall into the category of things your mother told you. Don’t slouch. Get your hands out of your pockets. Be polite. Others are the result of centuries of traditions far removed from the typical Westerner’s experience. Follow the basic few, however, and it will certainly pay off.

  • Expect to bow. There’s no getting around it. When in doubt, it’s best to follow the “do unto others as they do unto you” rule—bow as low as someone bows to you. It is also best to lower your eyes and keep your hands, fists unclenched, against your side.
  • Japan can be a study in contrasts. It’s generally fine to slurp your noodles or let out an occasional belch. But it is a culture where manners and respect are prized above all else.
  • "Japanese businessmen are very impressed if you learn something about the culture and you’re not just acting like an arrogant American,” says Carter Hall, an Austin, Texas-based high tech executive who frequently does business in the Pacific Rim.
  • In a country that prides itself on protocol and team unity, his worst mistake was once trying to go over the head of his Japanese counterpart, a serious breach of etiquette. “That didn’t work,” Hall says. “It cost me an order.
  • Respect and deference to the host is essential in Japan in both business and social situations. Hall’s number-one rule for doing business in Japan: “Never pour your own drink.”
  • In almost any situation in Japan, nuance means everything. A good grunt can send many coded messages. No matter what the topic, silence is a crucial element of any discussion. Resist the urge to jump in to gaps in conversation. The most important phrase to learn in Japanese is “sumimasen” (“soo-mee-mah-sehn”), which roughly translates as “excuse me,” and is handy in almost any situation.

This article has been adapted from the original, which was published in March 2005 by MSP Communications.

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