May 2, 2014 6:11 pm

A lesson in Japanese

‘It was hard not to envy social codes that keep the private and public distinct and separate’

Weekends are a good time to spool back through the week and take stock of some of the high points, while hitting “delete” on some of the darker moments.

Going for a brisk walk and run on Saturday morning allows you to focus on the things that really worked at the office and should be repeated. It also offers the chance to work through situations that could easily have been improved if only you’d slightly tweaked a presentation or brought some different colleagues into the meeting.

Recently, looking back on the week that was, I’ve had a couple of thoughts about how I might be more effective and run a better business. First, I realised that a working lunch works best when you have an adjoining room to move to once you’ve finished the presentations – and that it’s best to hire a full-time waiter to look after such functions. Fortunately, we’ve found an excellent waiter for the role but we need an extra 200 sq ft for the additional dining room rather than co-opting another conference room.

The second lesson of the week was that it’s always good to buy things in threes. On Monday I decided to pull out a new pair of chinos that I had purchased and, within a few minutes at the office, they’d already generated four or five compliments.

Now you might dismiss these flattering words, thinking that clever staff will always butter-up the boss – but I can promise that those kind words came from colleagues whose opinion I trust and are confident enough in their posts that they need not offer up empty compliments. Anyway, given that these trousers somehow worked (I reckon it was a combination of a lean cut and good fabric), I was happy that I went for all of the sensible colours that I found on offer in Milan.

The third lesson of my week was recognising the importance of getting on with things in a business setting and cutting out all the preamble and chatter that makes so many meetings painful and overly personal.

This particular epiphany came after a series of meetings with associates from Japan and the realisation that it’s much more comfortable working with people when you don’t need to go through life stories, tales of tedious weekend activities and monologues about family members who are unlikely to have any impact on future business development.

After a round of meetings with North American clients and then a session with people in working in similar sectors in Japan, it was hard not to be envious of the social codes in Japanese society that keep the private very distinct and separate from the public and also demand that this line is never crossed.

A business meeting in Chicago or New York with people you’ve never met usually involves 15 minutes of chit-chat that too often becomes highly personal before getting anywhere close to the matters that need to be discussed. By contrast, in Japan you can develop a business relationship for 15 months and have no idea if your key contact is married or single, has kids or lives with his mum or dresses up in Hello Kitty jumpsuits in his spare time – and you realise that this is a wonderful thing.

For starters, there’s no pressure on you to reveal anything about your personal life, and there’s no pressure on your counterpart to venture into territory that he’s probably not interested in and you’re not all that keen to discuss.

With these codes in place, you soon realise that there are plenty of other things to talk about beyond home life, and before long you might even have won more business and developed a stronger bond between your companies. After a few drinks, you might even learn that there are other social codes in Japan you wish were part of daily life in the west.

If, like me, you find the question “What are you up to later?” one of the most terrifying in the English language, as it often demands your having to concoct some excuse to get around the offer, the concept of yoji – roughly translated as having “things to attend to” – is deeply appealing.

As my Japanese associate explained, “It’s the most wonderful word, as everyone knows that you don’t ask anything else,” she said. “It sort of just shuts things down and the conversation moves on. In the west, it’s usually the opposite as it opens up a whole discussion. ‘Oh? You have something else on? Who with? Where are you going? Well, what are you doing after?’ In Japan, it’s just ‘yoji’ and the case is closed.”

From Monday I’m going to invite a bit of yoji into my life, albeit in a modified format for the west. When someone asks what I’m doing later, I can just say, “Oh, I’ve got yoji tonight.” Or I could say, “I might have tickets to go and see yoji.” Or perhaps, “I finally got a table at Yoji.” And happily leave it there.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at ft.com/brule

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Letter in response to this article:

Prepare for some personal questions / From Mr Nicholas Rose

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