Why Japanese don’t like small talk

Why Japanese don’t like small talk

Smalltalk“I don’t know why my boss in Dublin (Ireland) always starts our video conference by telling me what she did during the weekend. Why can’t we just dive into the meeting without wasting time?”

Many Japanese complain to me about how they don’t understand why their non-Japanese colleagues love small talk so much. “I have no problem when we’re talking about work” they say “but when it comes to small talk… I don’t know how to carry on the conversation and it’s a real pain.”

When Japanese have meetings with other Japanese, they just dive into the topic without any chit-chatting.

Though I do explain to Japanese businesspeople why small talk is important in an global communication context, and train people to become better “small-talkers,” I think it’s equally important for non-Japanese to know why we have trouble with small talk.

Yes, our younger generation has been definitely changing, but when it comes to Japan’s current leading business élite I feel pretty comfortable to generalize this.

So why don’t Japanese do small talk? Here’s a couple of reasons I can think of (let me know if you have others):

  • Self-sacrifice for the company is considered a virtue (will earn points for promotion) and you want to constantly show your peers (especially bosses) the company always comes first.
  • A consequence of the above mentioned attitude is that, if you start talking about your life outside work, people might see you as not taking your job seriously.
  • Well, probably you won’t have a life outside work because you’ll be most likely be working till after 10PM every weekday, too tired to do something on weekends.
  • Majority of Japanese consider themselves middle class. In such a strongly homogeneous society, a nail that sticks out gets most likely hammered: in other words, even if you’re lucky enough to have a happy personal life, you may not want to trigger jealousy among peers talking about it, since everyone may not be as lucky as you.

I recently wrote an article for my blog in Japanese entitled “Why small talk is important:” the article generated lots of hits and received many comments from people. Here’s a taster:

  • I don’t have an idea of the topics to bring up.
  • I don’t know how much I can ask or share (issues of boundaries)
  • I find the things we talk about superficial and, at the same time, I feel guilty for feeling this way.

So what can you do?

This is a question that I would like to ask you. I’ve been doing my part, helping Japanese people becoming better small talkers and would like you to not take it personally if you’re trying hard small-talking with your Japanese colleagues but don’t feel the “connection.”

Is there anything special that you’re doing to generate the “connection?”

Posted by Masafumi Otsuka

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