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THE Leadership Japan Series by Dale Carnegie Training Tokyo Japan

Jun 20, 2018

Praise or Flattery: Doing Business In Japan


Japan is awash with praise but it is praise more on the flattery side of the equation.  When you get here and you speak a few words of Japanese they will quickly tell you how fluent in Japanese you are.  You use chopsticks at the restaurant and you get praised for mastering this tricky set of implements.  This is all flattery, so don’t believe a word of it.  Japan has been a high density living environment for thousands of years, so flattery is grease to smooth the wheels.  They have learnt that the way to increase harmony is to smooth out all the rough edges, so this is where praise and flattery come in.


It happens in our countries too.  I am fascinated by American culture.  Winston Churchill noted the US and the UK were two countries separated by a common language.  Australia and America look similar but we too are quite different culturally.  I was reminded of this recently when an American businessman I had just met for the first time at a networking event introduced me to another American businessmen by saying, “Come meet my good friend Dr. Greg Story”.  No Australian would ever dream of doing that, because we are far too cynical, but this is how they grease the wheels in America.


The difference with praise and flattery in Japan is that they have institutionalised it.  When you get praised in Japan, (a) don’t believe a word of it and (b) just politely accept the praise.  Don’t say, “no, no, no” when they say something complimentary about you.  Just politely say “thank you very much for saying that” and move on, both sides happy with the fiction of the flattery. 


When I first arrived here on April 1st1979, I couldn’t speak any Japanese.  After a few months of studying Japanese, I could barely give the cab driver instructions on where I wanted to go.  The drivers reaction though was “Mr. Customer, your Japanese is so excellent”.  Four years later, after completing a Masters degree at Jochi University, when I was heading home and climbed into a cab, I got the exact same reaction “Oh Mr. Customer, your Japanese is so excellent”.  So if you receive praise here don’t believe a word of it, they are just being nice.


Interestingly though, because there is so much flattery going on here you can cut through with some praise of your own back to them.  They all know it is the flattery format so usually nothing really resonates. Everyone politely joins in the game of flattery and no one takes what is said at face value.  You can have what you say taken at face value however, if you know how to deliver the praise so it is believable.  You can actually get cut through and gain differentiation with the other person.


Be it the buyer, your team or anyone you meet in Japan, if you want to recognize something they did, then be very specific about it.  Don’t make general comments like “very good” or “good job” or ”good comment”.  All of this is too vague and just sits in the flattery basket to be mentally disappeared immediately.  Instead tell them something they did that was good, but then isolate out the thing that was good.


So with the case of staff, it might go like this: “Your comment in the meeting Suzuki san was really excellent.  When you said that we should go together to visit our buyers, that was really insightful.  I am sure the next level down never get visited and the chance for us to meet them and say thank you, is a great chance to build the relationship and increase future sales volumes.  Thank you for bringing that possibility up at the meeting”. 


In this example, we have drawn out what was good, so that the praise is related to something specific which they did, which has value. When they are a staff member of your firm, tell them how what they did helps the firm’s big picture and encourage them to keep doing that and thank them once more.  If we just say “good job” they cannot relate to that comment, because they are very busy doing many tasks and just exactly which one is it you are referring to?  We need to tell them. 


For example, “Suzuki san, thank you for that great comment in the meeting, that was great.  Your insight is very valuable. We are going to take that and change what we are currently doing to provide a better service for the client, as a result of your comment. This will help us win greater market share, thanks to you.  We really appreciate that input and please keep those insights coming, we really value you.”.  This will not be seen by the staff member as simple flattery that can be disposed of and forgotten immediately.  This style of giving praise will resonate and in a country drowning in fake flattery, you will stand out in the crowd.