Sunday, November 3, 2013

When a Japanese Says it is Difficult

Suppose you are working for an American Computer Corporation who outsources software development to a Japanese Software house. You flew to Tokyo for the discussion meeting with this Japan Software for your next project. You did your homework and the presentation went quite well. You dined with the Japan software staff and drank and sang together. You thought your trip purpose was 99% made. Their staff sent you off to your hotel and made sure you went back to your hotel safely. You slept well that night, despite that you usually do not sleep well with a different pillow than from your home. You thought they are treating you that well because they like your project, and you are sure you could make this deal done next day.

The next morning, Japan Software sent the same person to pick you up and they took you to their office. They were kind, courteous, and nice, smiling. In their office they added more software engineers for your meeting. You thought again you are very close to your success in getting your project done. Only the thing you noticed is that they did not get to your business points. They talked about unrelated or general things such as the general computer market in the US, stock plunged last week, what was the cause of it, etc, etc...

You became a bit frustrated so you stood up and requested to get back to business points. They looked a little shocked but regained smile and started to talk to each other to themselves. It took a while finishing talking to themselves. The oldest guy from Japan Software started to talk:
"Yes, Mr. Smith (whoever the name could be), we all found your project looks very interesting. We did our internal meeting yesterday and early today. There are some points which are VERY DIFFICULT for us."

You need to clarify asking him:
"Well, Difficulty? Uhmmm... OK, let me ask you what kind of DIFFICULTY you are talking about? Technical difficulty? Schedule difficulty? Budget difficulty? Staffing difficulty, or what?"

Mr. Japan Soft looked a little embarrassed. He needed to talk back to his Japanese staff and answered:
"Umh, it is a general difficulty. It involves some technical, some staffing. It is difficult, anyway."

You are more confused. So you asked him again:
"Well, why don't you tell me what is your challenge here. We may be able to help you with that. We will be able to address and discuss about it."

Mr. Japan Soft:
"Mr. Smith, it is not a matter of challenge, it is DIFFICULTY."

This conversation can stop here. I need to tell you that you will not be able to get this deal done. No chance.

I would like to show you how Mr. Japan Soft would have thought in his mind during this conversation:
"Oh my goodness, this person never understands I am saying it is DIFFICULT. He must have recognized by now that it is impossible for us to do this project."

There are 2 things we can learn from here:
1. The fact that the Japanese company treats you well has nothing to do with business. They will do the same to anybody who visits to this company. The majority of Japanese are trained to be courteous even to their enemies. They will be more polite if they know that they need to say "NO" to you. This is confusing even among Asian cultures and causes misunderstanding that Japanese are double sided.

2. The Japanese word for DIFFICULT is nothing so much different from English. It does not mean impossible. But, in this case, Mr. Japan Soft meant it was impossible, hoping that Mr. Smith understand that it is impossible and they do not want to make this deal in softer way. This way of saying is quite common in Japan even in business. For Mr. Japan's mentality, it is too harsh to say it is impossible.

Isn't there any way to avoid this kind of misunderstanding? Yes, there is. You could set a rule before your meeting starts. Your opening statement could be:
"I like to be straight. If I go too straight, I apologize now. But let's go straight and clear so that we do not leave any misunderstanding behind."

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