Whether you are studying abroad in Japan or even just making Japanese friends, when meeting people for the first time you want to give a good first impression. When visiting another country, it’s important to be aware of social customs in that country, but Japanese culture can be subtly different from the majority of Western culture in a lot of ways.
Most people who study Japanese or have an interest in Japan know something of the culture, but even the most knowledgeable Japan aficionados have habits that may leave Japanese people wondering if all Americans (Canadians/Europeans/etc.) do such strange things. If you Google “Japanese faux pas” you can find most of the standard things to avoid, but I wanted to touch on some things that I have seen in my personal experience. I also wanted to focus on first meetings and first impressions, because those make even the most confident person nervous.
So I present to you 3 faux pas to avoid when you meet a Japanese person for the first time.
1. Mimicking behavior you saw in anime
Anime is a great way to pick up Japanese phrases, to practice your Japanese, and to connect with Japanese pop culture. There are so many genres of anime that you’re sure to find something you enjoy, and many of them are widely available with subtitles in your native language. However, I have known a lot of anime fans that incorporate the gestures, way of talking, or quirks of their favorite anime characters into their daily interactions. This can be fun when you’re talking with other fans or cosplaying at a convention, but I wouldn’t recommend doing your best Naruto impression when you first meet someone. Imagine if you met someone for the first time and they spoke and acted exactly like Tony Stark from Iron Man – how would you respond? You’d probably be friendly, but slightly confused.
A lot of anime behavior is exaggerated, like a lot of behavior in American cartoons or movies, because it’s for entertainment purposes. Most of real Japanese behavior is much more subtle, and acting like yourself is a great way to impress potential new friends.
I knew of someone who, the first time they met new Japanese exchange students, went into dogeza 土下座 within the first hour as a means to apologize. The Japanese students exclaimed that this was unnecessary and that there would be no need to do more than say sumimasen すみません (“I’m sorry”). The second time they met, the American student again attempted dogeza but it really just made everyone uncomfortable.
*dogeza 土下座 – a form of apology characterized by kneeling directly on the ground and bowing to prostrate oneself by touching one’s head to the floor
Dogeza is a very rare form of apology that is only performed when one has committed some unthinkable, atrocious wrong against someone else (e.g. cheating on your wife), and even then it is exceedingly rare to see outside of a drama. So to use it for a minor apology (“sorry I mispronounced that word”) is pretty over-the-top, and to use it twice in the same manner makes it kind of inappropriate.
This is an extreme example, but I have seen many other imitations of anime behavior in a classroom or social setting that made others uncomfortable. One very distinct Japanese quality is working to make a harmonious group setting, and acting in a way that’s uncomfortable for others in a group definitely falls under social faux pas. Once you’ve gotten to know the other person a little better, doing your best Luffy impression will go over a lot better. On the first meeting? Just be yourself ^^
As a girl, and an American, I have a habit of hugging my friends. Male, female, as long as they are close friends, they will probably hug me, and I will hug them too. But I don’t hug my Japanese friends, or my Chinese friends either. Why? It’s not part of their culture.
When my Japanese husband came to the US to study English, he was surprised that people he had just met (usually girls) hugged him even though he had known them for less than a day. He wasn’t complaining about being hugged by girls, but it was uncomfortable for him as a Japanese man because it’s just not a part of his culture. He has never hugged his parents once in his life, but he knows that my female relatives will hug him. Now that he is accustomed to the American habit of hugging it doesn’t phase him, but at first it was a very big culture shock. Not to mention his friends from Brazil and Ecuador, who have a custom of kissing the cheek as a greeting…
If you go to study abroad in Japan, you will never be hugged by your Japanese friends (probably). Can you ever hug them? It definitely depends on the individual person, but if you really want to give someone a hug you might want to ask before you go for it. Explain that it’s a part of your culture, and I am sure that many of them will at least give it a shot, because many Japanese people are interested in learning about other cultures. You can try to read their expression and see how comfortable they are with it, because they may agree even if they really don’t want to be hugged. Again, thinking about the group harmony is important, but it’s still ok to express yourself.
3. Bow or handshake?
If you Google Japanese social faux pas, especially for business, it comes up often that you should bow rather than shake hands when you meet someone for the first time. This isn’t really a faux pas, but I’ve had experiences where I met a Japanese person and tried to bow while they tried to shake my hand, or the other way around.
Bowing when you meet someone is a good rule of thumb, but you have to remember that Japan has had quite a bit of Western influence, especially in business. Most Japanese people know that Americans (and other Westerners) shake hands when they meet, and many will emulate this when they travel to a Western country or meet foreigners.
The way that I approach the question of a traditional Japanese bow versus a handshake is to let the other person take the lead. This prevents awkward gestures where you try to guess whether they will bow or shake your hand, and stops you from making an awkward (and maybe slightly insulting) bow or flailing your hands. Note: If you are in a business meeting and you know the person is superior to you, you might want to start first with a respectful bow because this is more common in a business setting.
If you or they choose to greet with a bow, make sure that your bow is appropriate for the person you are meeting. If you are meeting someone of a higher social status or level than you, like a business superior, the depth of your bow should increase. If you are meeting someone of a similar social status, like another student, you won’t have to bow as deeply, and the bow might involve just your head and neck.
If the greeting becomes a handshake, just use a firm, brief handshake as you normally would. Japanese people are familiar with the business handshake and might shake your hand to make you feel more comfortable.
I think the most important thing to remember when meeting someone new (Japanese or otherwise) is that being yourself is the best way to make a good impression. Thinking about cultural differences is important, so that you don’t do something truly offensive, but don’t get too hung up on it. Even if you don’t speak Japanese or you aren’t very confident about your ability, just being sincere will be visible in your actions and the other person will be glad to overlook any small mistakes.
Do you have any other faux pas to avoid when meeting someone for the first time? In Japan? In another country? What faux pas have you made when meeting someone new? Let me know in the comments!