A Lesson on Formality From Japan

by | 0 comments

Me and Kate have always been on the informal side of things. Maybe that’s why we decided to give the whole digital nomad shtick a shot. Living in SEA or roaming around hostels isn’t something that might appeal to stiffer characters.

But here’s the thing: traveling connects you to various cultures and enriches you in the process, right?

In our case, our jumping from one location to another taught us the importance of being more formal. And that happened in Japan.

No matter how we cut it, American culture can be quite slack. There’s nothing slack in how the Japanese interact – even outside of business affairs.

The first hint we got at how formal Japan can be were all those men dressed in suits we could see on the streets of Tokyo! No, I’m not only talking about the apparent typical salaryman wear – black suits, black ties, white shirts. Surprisingly enough, there was quite the variation, with one unspoken rule: if you have regular employment, you will be dressed officially.

The same applied to a lot of the working women we saw. This was a shocking, eye-opening contrast to how things are in the West. Actually, how things are in the majority of the countries we had visited before.

Kate isn’t that interested in entrepreneur meetups and similar events, but I am. There was an intriguing mastermind group in Tokyo during the time of our one week stay in Shinjuku. Naturally, I decided I’d take part in it. Luckily for me, it was in English, and a solid portion of the attendees were foreigners.

Nevertheless, the etiquette was totally Japanese-style. Aside from participating in the event and expanding my knowledge (it was a total blast!), I had another opportunity:

To observe the typical business-level interactions in Japan.

Yes, that involved the bowing we know all too well from various internet ‘Wacky & Polite Japan’ style listicles. The fact that you treat the person opposite’s CV like a treasure – bow your head, take it with both of your hands, and keep it in your special CV compartment or a special wallet altogether.

I’ve heard that working in Japan can be a total nightmare – overtime, power harassment due to the strict hierarchy and similar dark sides of the labor market. And, given me and Kate’s lifestyle, we could never cut it in a traditional office environment anyways.

However, that event had something magical in it. Something exquisite, something that prodded me and made me feel a bit ashamed. Ashamed of what? Well, of the fact that it hadn’t crossed my mind how…I don’t know, pleasant, could it be to formal from time to time. To play the formal game without it being unnatural and plain weird to you.

I know, it probably sounds stupid, but that event in the center of Tokyo changed something in me. Obviously, that’s something that goes beyond words, so I couldn’t explain it to Kate properly. I could paint the picture of the interactions in that conference room, but it wasn’t possible to recreate the effect it had on me.

Nevertheless, after that trip (our second in Japan) we decided to be a bit more formal. We updated our wardrobe a bit – for those times when we would NOT be on the road. We even created our own Cvs! Digital nomads don’t really need physical CVs, but we did it anyways. We used a free resource called TempLoola for that.

And you know what?

It felt good. Better than what we expected. We’d gotten so used to being on the road, keeping it relaxed, even slack at times. That’s not a bad thing. Lots of digital nomads are like this. It’s a part of a more carefree, liberal culture of the new generation labor market.

Yet maintaining a balance and appreciating the beauty of the world of formalities is a sign of actually being mature. Of being an adult. I’m happy that this short stay in Japan could teach me this short, but impactful lesson.

Sharing is caring!