Kitsune! I've got a Japanese body language question

OK, so in our Language testing department, we have these two Japanese guys. Today they came up to me and asked me a question that I wasn’t sure the answer to, so I sort of grimaced and drew in a breath between my clenched teeth while I was thinking about it. IN UNISON, they both took a step back and bowed slightly.

WTF did I do? :)

Maybe there is in fact a cultural meaning, but I suspect that it’s simpler than that. I mean, I don’t think you have to be Japanese to potentially (mis)construe the scowl and grimace as “personal discomfort” rather than “let me think about it”.

  • Alan

They probably thought you were powering up for a fireball attack.

:lol: :lol: :lol:

This was actually something of a running gag at Hitachi Data Systems when my company had a contract there. In Japanese culture, it is impolite to say “no” in a direct or negative manner to a request. “Kitsune-San, can you have the system software designed, coded, integrated by the end of November?” The American answer is “No, not in a million years. What kind of idiot manager would plan such a stupid schedule?” The Japanese answer would be to suck in air through clenched teeth and say “It is very difficult.”

Don’t know if it relates to your situation or not.


  • Link removed due to malware -

Actually, that’s very close to the situation. They came over looking for the FLT lead, who happened to be on a break. They asked me if it was ok to just drop off their builds on his desk, then the above stuff happened. So it sounds like your scenario may be right. Thanks!

I liked ElRavager’s explanation better tho :P

I’ve done business in Japan, and one of the things they tell you in the training is to try not to ask questions that would require a direct “no” answer, as mentioned above. So you ask things like “How difficult would it be to…” or “What would we need to do to accomplish so and so”, etc.

It’s not just the Japanese who don’t like to say no. The English don’t either, and have a very similar response. I know, because I do it. It causes a fuck load of confusion for Americans - and has caused me to work way too hard on stuff, and basically disappoint my employers.

It is hard to say no.

One of the things I’ve learned in my work is that I’m much better off making the customer say no. I do contract work (it’s pseudo-contracting, we’re a group/arm of the University’s IT dept. that does contract work for other departments/schools at the U) and database programming, and I never say no. If someone asks for something, I will clearly spell out just how much it would cost (if it’s truly impractical or nigh-impossible I over inflate the cost), and they say “well, here’s what we have, what can we do with that?”

When the next boom comes around, you’re going to run into an idiot with too much money and he’ll agree to your inflated price for the impossible, and thus expect the impossible :)

I work for a University. That’s never going to happen. :)

That said, if something is truly impossible, we point that out. If it’s just really, really, hard we’ve set the price so high we’d make our bosses happy if the customer says “OK”.

8+ years, we’ve gotten good at making them say no to stuff they shouldn’t be doing or that we don’t want to do. :twisted:

I think everyone else here probably pointed you in the right direction anyway and there isn’t anything too terribly specific that I could expand upon. Other than to guess how much higher above these two people were you? Methinks they just thought you were really annoyed by their question, that’s the way I would have taken it and I would have apologized for bothering you and retreated quickly.

Hey Tyrion, is what the English do more of a meaning “No” or having a hard time turning someone down?


On my current project, not at all higher than them in title, although when people are referred to me about something they’re usually told “Ask Tim, he’s in charge of online,” which could give them the incorrect impression that I’m more important than I actually am.

In charge of online, huh? I think then, any difference in perception might have more to do with the fact that it seems like you’re in a different department, and that calls for being more polite, as well, have you been with the company longer? It doesn’t matter what position you hold, as long as its higher than theirs, you’re older or you’ve been with the company longer. And if all four of these things are true, then, if it were, I’d be really cautious in approaching you with something.


Well, Kitsune, please take one uncouth westerners word for it, but we really don’t have the same reverence for hierarchy and apologies. We’re just not that polite, and if you deal with westerners, the overwhelming politeness might irritatate some people who just want a straight answer, dammit! :P

I’ve noticed that, someone through e-mail has been trying to get me to answer a question straight for a while now and he says he’s about to hop a flight and shoot me. :lol: I mocked his insistence on a STRAIGHT answer (he kept on putting in caps) by replying with a mock lisp, and he really gave up on me!

I hope I don’t come across as condescending though.

Truth be told though, a lot of Japanese would rather talk in more normal language, but one just doesn’t know how the other person is going to take it.

He he, I looked over my post and realized you can’t really glean very much of what I think from it.



I dunno, Kitsune. I’ve never had any trouble with any of your replies to my various ignorant gaijin questions.

A bit of both, depending on the situation.

Generally I have observed that the English have a hard time turning down their bosses and colleagues for whom they have a lot of respect.

This is interesting, since this is something a lot of bluff speaking Englanders pretend doesn’t happen, but…

Most English people assume that if someone says something is extremely tricky to do, then that will cause the person asking for it to reconsider. It is better that they withdraw their request then have it denied, which is rude and demeaning for the person asking it.

A lot of English people are not aware that they act this way, but is a part of polite behaviour that we learn by example as very small children.

Americans seem to have absolutely no comprehension of this. Saying, “No” to someone does not have the connotations it does in other societies. Apart from that, I can say that Americans in the South are charming and polite in all other matters.

As an American who thinks like a psychologist I can understand how difficult it must be to have a conversation with most of us. Many of us are raised with countless influences and idols which mold our personality. And we’re all constantly learning who we want to be. I prefer to see us as no different from any other culture of people, but that may be quite ignorant of me. Most Americans eventually reject the culture they were raised in as they mature to adulthood. This very common and highly acceptable by some while others may feel differently. Ultimately, there is no formal system to learn how to talk to us. It’s easier for us to learn yours. We’re so different from each other you would have to become our friend to really know how to talk to us. There’s not much time for that when it comes to doing business.

Oh man, this is a blast from the past. I’m going to be returning from Japan to Canada after 12 years and I’ve got so many Japanese mannerisms it’s ridiculous.Teeth sucking, ‘excuse me’ hand wave, peace symbol for photos, tongue clicking of disapproval, bowing my head in apology when accidentally getting in others’ way, the 'heee" sound whenever I hear something interesting. It’s going to be a tough readjustment.

Maybe you too should ask Kitsune for advice.