Shorly after arriving to live in Japan, a few years ago, I received an advice from a work colleague. That advice turned out to be very sound when doing business in Japan (or generally for social relationships in Japan). The advice was: “always apologise”. He told me that at every meeting I should open with some apology, even if there is nothing to apologise for. Apologise for them having to take time off their busy schedule to meet you, or for the offer for a drink. Anything.
I was reminded of this piece of advice this morning, during a flight from Tokyo to Singapore. Across the aisle from me sat a middle-aged Japanese man (the infamous oji-san, literally “uncle” but generally a term used for that ubiquitous, fastidious “salaryman” that is constantly irritable and could not care less about others). Even before we took off he managed to get into some argument with one of the Singaporean flight attendants; I’m not sure what it was about, but I’m pretty sure it was over some minor point. A few minutes after that argument, a Japanese flight attendant appeared, together with the Singaporean one, and what followed was a classic example of the “always apologise” rule.
First, the Japanese flight attendant went down on her knees. Why? Because this way he would be talking down to her instead of looking up to her. Second, the Japanese flight attendant opened by a lengthy apology, even before asking him what happened. She then listend intently to the man, constantly nodding her head in apology and understanding. When she translated for the benefit of her colleague, the Singaporean flight attendant tried to offer her own explanation (in English, standing up), but the Japanese flight attendant quickly put a hand on her arm as if to say: “please don’t make things worse by interfering; just shut up and let me handle this”. She proceeded to apologise again and allowed the man to continue to vent his anger. After a couple of minutes he was out of steam and she concluded by apologising again. The man gruffily accepted the apology and life went on.
What the Japanese flight attendant did was something I’ve witnessed countless times in Japan. I have no doubt the flight attendants had a good answer to the man’s complaint and quite possibly they were also completely in the right and his complaint was baseless. But that was not the point. The Japanese flight attendant understood that in order to prevent escalation she needed to save this oji-san‘s face. After making the complaint he could not simply accept any explanation; his “status” as a passenger (and, yes, as a man) was such that he needed to be offered a way to climb down from the tree. She offered him that way not by addressing his complaint but by aplogising for him having to make a complaint in the first place!
This is a tactic that us Westerners (and Israelis in particular) find very had to adopt. Many times I insisted on proving the other side wrong, making absolutely sure what my position was. A much more successful tactic would have been, on many of those occasions, to obfuscate the point, apologise, and offer the other side the chance to step down without having to admit defeat. What I saw this morning was a classic example of such behaviour. I don’t believe the Singaporean flight attendant realised exactly what had transpired.