Most of our affiliate companies are incredibly internationally-minded and often aren’t even in the sort of industry in which interns would be interacting with other businesses. However, especially with internships in business consultancy and the like, knowing some Japanese business etiquette will certainly help you be more culturally aware.
The way business cards are treated in Japanese business culture is often the most confusing thing to newcomers. Generally speaking, a person’s business card should be treated with great respect, and not considered as just a piece of card with words printed on it. How you treat the card basically indicates how you will treat the relationship from here-on-out, so using courtesy will show that you take this new relationship seriously and professionally. Use both hands to handle it carefully, say “thank you” upon receiving it, and leave it resting on the table until your meeting starts winding down. When exchanging cards you should typically be standing, and take care not to let your card obscure your new acquaintance’s. It doesn’t show respect to fidget or play with the card or to use it for note-taking.
The Shacho Goes First
Seniority and hierarchy are valued in Japanese culture. Higher-ups and guests essentially have the right-of-way, and it’s polite to express your understanding of this through actions like letting them on the elevator ahead of you, allowing them to sit closer to the leader of a meeting, allowing them to sit first, drink tea first, etc. Let the leaders lead.
Shake vs. Bow
Japanese people obviously know that other cultures shake hands, and if they offer their hand to you, you can give it a quick, friendly, not-too-firm shake. Otherwise, they’ll probably bow. Give a kind mimic of the bow in return. Nobody is looking for perfection here, just politeness and awareness of your surroundings.
The Nail That Sticks Out
There’s an old saying in Japan, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Don’t worry about anyone actually hitting you with a hammer, but in a business setting, speaking out of turn or making small talk about personal matters can be seen as impolite and upsetting. Silence in these settings has a correlation with maturity and professionalism, so when in doubt, don’t speak out. This approach can also be useful for dealing with unknown situations; if you’re unsure which seat to take, or unsure to whom you should first hand your business card, don’t feel pressed to take action first. Take a moment to collect yourself and maybe even wait for a cue from your counterpart or colleague for the appropriate action.
A Willingness to Succeed
This probably isn’t going to come as any surprise to those who are familiar with Japanese culture, but punctuality and reliability are seen as professional and respectful. If you want to make the best impression possible, try to express these characteristics in your behavior. Being proactive, like showing up to work a little early or a visible willingness to help out with tasks even if they aren’t necessarily your duty, will show that you are dedicated to your work, to the company, and to those around you. Your proactivity and contributions will certainly not go unnoticed.
Again, Japanese people certainly don’t expect non-Japanese people to understand every minor detail about the business culture in Japan, but taking these kinds of steps to be polite and courteous will go a long way.