Getting drunk in Japan business deals
Sharing meals is a meaningful tool for trust building in nearly
all cultures. But in some cultures, sharing drinks — particularly
alcoholic drinks — is equally important.
I once conducted a training program for a German couple moving to
Japan, assisted by Hiroki, a wise and entertaining Japanese
culture specialist. The German asked Hiroki how to get his
Japanese colleagues to tell him what was really going on: “They
are so formal and quiet. I worry if I am not able to build the
necessary trust, I won’t get the information I need from them.”
Hiroki thought quietly for a moment and then responded with only
a small trace of humor in his eyes: “Best strategy is to drink
“To drink?” the German client questioned.
“Yes, drink until you fall down.”
When Hiroki said this, I thought back to my first-ever ride in
the Tokyo metro, when I
saw several groups of Japanese businessmen stumbling through the
station as they traveled home after a long evening of
well-lubricated socializing. I now realized they were following
Hiroki’s advice — quite literally.
If you look at Japan on
the Trusting scale, you will see that it is a
relationship-based culture, though not as far to the right as
China or India. During the day, the Japanese generally take a
task-based approach — but the relationship building that happens
in the evening can be critical to business success.
In Japanese culture, where group-harmony and avoiding open
conflict are overriding goals, drinking provides an opportunity
to let down your hair and express your real thoughts. Drinking is
a great platform for sharing your true inner feelings (what are
called honne rather than tatemae feelings) as well as for
recognizing where bad feelings or conflict might be brewing and
to strive to address them before they turn to problems. Under no
circumstances should the discussions of the night before be
mentioned the next day. Drinking alcohol is therefore an
important Japanese bonding ritual not only with clients, but also
within one’s own team.
Many Japanese use drinking to forge connections, as captured by
the bilingual expression nomunication, stemming from the
Japanese verb nomu (“to drink”). Japanese salespeople
frequently woo their clients over drinks, knowing that although
explicit deal making is never done during this type of
socializing, a deal is rarely won with- out it. Of course,
drinking to build trust is not just a Japanese custom. Across
East Asia, whether you are working in China, Thailand, or Korea,
doing a substantial amount of drinking with customers and
collaborators is a common step in the trust-building process.
Many people from task-based cultures don’t get it. “Why would I
risk making a fool of myself in front of the very people I need
to impress?” they wonder. But that is exactly the point. When you
share a round of drinks with a business partner, you
show that person you have
nothing to hide. And when they “drink until they fall down” with
you, they show you that they are willing to let their guard down
completely. “Don’t worry about looking stupid,” Hiroki reassured
our German manager, who had begun wringing his hands nervously.
“The more you are willing to remove social barriers in the
evening, the more they will see you as trustworthy.”
Alcohol is not the only way to build a business relationship. If
you don’t drink, you can certainly find other ways to partake in
the fun; in Japan, a round of karaoke or a trip to the spa can do
wonders. And in Arab cultures, where alcohol is avoided, you can
forget beer and relax instead over a cup of tea.
This excerpt adapted with permission from “The
Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of
Global Business” (2014) by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from