Stories from an American Female Japanese Salary Man: Shinsotsu tales – the lightbulb moment I had with business manners.

(Previous stories in this series: Part 1, Part 2)

The shinsotsu (新卒) , or new graduate, system in Japan is a great topic to use to clearly illustrate some of the core differences between how Japanese and American businesses are structured and operated, and I’d like to share a bit about my personal experiences. I don’t think many Americans have ever entered a company as a true blue shinsotsu, so it’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while.

Japanese companies usually have the same start date for the fiscal year, and all new graduates start will official enter the company on the that day. This all usually falls right on April 1st, and usually companies have a small ceremony to welcome the new people.

Because of how people start working at the same time, the senpai-kohai (先輩・後輩senior/junior) relationships are clearly established within a company. Your group of shinsotsu will be your douki(同期 coworkers from the same year ), and you will go through the same experiences together as you get your footing transitioning from student to full-time employee.

I entered my first company as a new grad right after finishing my degree, so I went through the whole shinsotsu experience from start to finish. It’s like breaking in a pair of new shoes- it will be uncomfortable at first, but in time it will feel normal.

One of the first things you will probably be assigned to do as a shinsotsu is to greet guests or visitors to your company and show them to the conference rooms. It kind of feels like being a host or hostess at a restaurant but it’s a good chance to get used to the flow if everything in the office and practice your manners.

I have fond memories of being incredibly nervous for they first month or so after completing my manners lessons and being assigned that task.

I was overly concerned about being “taken seriously” at one point since I am not Japanese, so I became pretty diligent about following exact procedure when talking to people outside my company. I studied manners and business keigo (polite Japanese) with my Japanese peers, but when it came to showtime I still felt incredibly tense. It was something that was hard for my American brain to wrap itself around.

Well, it turns out that as long as you use common sense and don’t do anything weird, people will more or less be totally cool with you.

Greeting visitors has little to no variation to the pattern below:

1. Greet them in person at the reception area. Tell them you are sorry for making them wait, even if you came within 15 seconds after they buzzed you from the phone in the front area.

2. Lead them to the conference room. Guide them to the side of the table that is farthest AND facing the door.

3. Tell them you will bring them a drink and have them be seated. Prepare tea or coffee. (This depends on the weather. Scalding hot tea during the summer is a no-no! This is one of those common sense things.) While you are getting the tea, check to see if the person they are meeting is on time.

4. When you enter the room, be sure to knock meekly before opening the door and apologize for entering. Place their drinks in front of them and tell them the person they are meeting will be with them shortly.

Easy peasy, right? Japanese people normally don’t do small talk, so you don’t really have to be great at conversation to give a good impression either. Just make sure they are in their seats and have their drinks.

"Am I doing this right? What if I spill everywhere? Did I insult her existence in any way?!"

“Am I doing this right? What if I spill everywhere? Did I insult her existence in any way?! Wait did I really just say that?”

However, newbie Johanna went through about 4 weeks of intense daily critical self-evaluation. After talking with a close sempai, I received this wonderful advice that I keep with me even to this day  “When in doubt just apologize. Put a sorry in the beginning and end, and you will have your bases covered. You basically can’t say sorry too many times. For good measure sorry again if you aren’t sure.”

If you worked in Japan, I'm positive you have asked yourself this question before.

If you worked in Japan, I’m positive you have asked yourself this question before.

When I finally realized I was NOT messing up every time, I felt like I could take on the world! It was amazing!

I think people outside of Japan put Japanese manners on some sort of alter. “It is the most polite place ever!” I think rather than saying everyone is very polite (not to say they are not polite), Japan just has a very clear set of rules that you have to remember. It really is a different sense of “polite” than what you would encounter in the US.  In the business setting Japanese people just want to feel comfortable and generally don’t want to deal with anything out of the blue or deviate from the norm (i.e. small talk!). I’ve been in hundreds of Japanese meetings in the last few years, and they really do all follow the same pattern.

However, just like anywhere else, smiling and having a good attitude counts, and even if your keigo is not perfect as a non-Japanese person, I don’t think most people will jump down your throat. If you make a consorted effort to learn Japanese business manners, people will actually be very complimentary. It was probably the hardest hurdle I had to overcome when I started my job.

Remember, sempai says that when in doubt just lower your head and say you are sorry. It’s like the social version of a get out of jail free card for slip-ups.*

*not a guarantee


One thought on “Stories from an American Female Japanese Salary Man: Shinsotsu tales – the lightbulb moment I had with business manners.

  1. Melissa says:

    Love this! I’d really like to know more about polite conversation in general – I’m so straightforward it seems like an alient concept to me sometimes!


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