Learning to read the air

April 25th, 2014, 1pm

Although I have been working for Japan for years now, all of my clients were gaijins residing here. Today I had my first visit to a proper Japanese client, a corporation in Minato-ku, filled with salary men in a grey building. I was a little nervous: Nervous I wouldn’t bow enough, or too much, or in the wrong moment. Nervous I would not give my meishi – business card – in the proper, two-handed way. Nervous my manners would be too direct, too harsh.

We entered the lift. Nobody speaks. I will shut my mouth too, although I normally make a sport of chatting about some banality in the elevators, it’s my way of breaking down that barrier everyone puts up in business environments. In case the machine breaks and we have to spend the next 12 hours together is the cubicle… We are up (23rd floor?) and walk towards two uniformed ladies behind a reception desk. They look like airline stewards in their blue uniforms and with those hats on. We are invited to step into a room where our contact will shortly come. The room is very similar to any other meeting room I’ve been to: boring grey carpet, blue coloured chairs, fake wood table (the rubber edge is something I hadn’t seen before), on it some kind of telephone UFO with conference call capabilities. There’s just one window with a view of the next grey building. After 2 minutes one of the stewards appears with three cups of green tea. I hadn’t asked for it of was asked if I’d like something different. It’s hot. Soon the weather will be officially too warm and they will step into iced tea.

Our man comes in, he’s serious and tight up until he realises I do not speak Japanese. He relaxes and a big smile comes out as he is very happy to be able to practice his English with me. His family used to live in Australia. It all seems to go well. I bow when he bows, I give him my card properly, with both hands, take his and read it throughly before position it on the table, next to my notebook. Funny thing is that during the whole meeting he would be much more at ease and smiling when speaking in English than when Japanese is spoken…

All goes well. I am saved. But towards the end, I slip. In my enthusiasm I make a very direct question: so do you choose for option A or B?. Silence. My Japanese companion straightens her back and looks at me from one side of her eyes and to the client alternative and nervously. The air may be read: ”That was a too straight question, Luis!”. I inmediately apologise for being blunt, but it’s fine: they aren’t interested in my apologies since they are already trying to manage the disaster with smiles and nice words to each other. I understand (but it might be just me) that now the air says ”never mind, you are a barbarian but can’t help it”. I am forgiven, we shake hands and bow a little, he walks us to the silent elevator again. We enter and he bows one last time as the doors close as a theater courtain. I bow back, but actually do it to a closed elevator door. Nice Luis. Oh well.. this is why I am here. I am learning you know. Learning to read the air.

Stephen, Thomas, Tomomi, Javier and 24 others said thanks.

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Luis Mendo

Drawing myself away in Tokyo. 面倒くさい。 www.luismendo.com

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