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Lessons from Japan - Talking like an Adult

About two months into living in Japan, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine from college to see if he wanted to meet up, and if he could offer any pointers about breaking in to the industry. I was still in that stage where everything was shiny and new and amazing and filled with sunshine and butterflies… and where my Japanese was objectively bad. This had been working out ok for me up to that point – my enthusiasm made up for my lack of language skills about 90 percent of the time, and most people were amused enough that it didn’t seem to bother them.

Anyways, this acquaintance invited me to a party he was having with a few people he knew that worked in the game and/or music industry. Of course, my answer was “I WILL SUPER BE THERE,” so he said, “Ok, meet me at OOO Bar in Shibuya next Tuesday at 7”, and I said “Ok great”, and then I went home and remembered that I’m terrible at Japanese and almost no one speaks English and oh God what did I just get myself into?

Well, next Tuesday finally rolled around. I dressed up a bit, otsukaresama deshita’d out of work as soon as I humanly could, and ended up at the bar… about 20 minutes too early. So there I was, my clueless foreigner self standing outside this bar in this mildly concerning alleyway in Shibuya at night in the cold, just staring at the door and shivering and praying that the guy I knew showed up soon because I had no idea what I should say if I walked in. Shitsurei shimasu? Sumimasen? Gomenasai? Why are there so many ways to say “Excuse me” in Japanese?

Lucky for me, he showed up, which saved me another good 10 minutes of sitting out in the cold and staring at the door. We went in, and it turned out he booked the whole upstairs for the party. I took a seat, and after a few deep breaths and a minor panic attack, started trying to talk to people. Turns out, everyone was friendly and awesome! I got to briefly talk with one of my all-time favorite composers and hang out with a game designer whose work I love! “Send me your CV!” the game designer had said!

So, despite the language barrier, I went home feeling pretty good.

Following Up

After work the next day, I sat down at my computer and started going through the business cards I had gotten, getting ready to write some follow-up e-mails. First things first, I had to send my CV and my portfolio. I opened up the latest version of my resume to make sure everything is up to date, and then it hit me –

I have no idea what a CV looks like in Japanese.

So I said to myself, “Eh, I’ll write the e-mail first and ask someone at work tomorrow about how to properly format my CV.” And then I realized:

I have no idea how to even write a follow-up e-mail in Japanese.

I’ve written a million follow-up e-mails in English, but in Japanese? No idea. I got stuck at “Dear So-and-So” before I had to go and consult every single website on the internet about how people write e-mails in Japan. And that’s when I began to realize that I had some real work to do before I even started to think about having a career over here.

All That Other Stuff

We talk a lot about how to be good at your craft and about the business skills needed to be a professional. But you know what? I think we forget about the “people” part of the equation a lot. Being good at communicating is just as important as being good at what we do. How can you write a good score if you can’t really talk with the team about their goals and vision for the game? Obviously, this is even more important for networking. Yes, you network to find new gigs, but it’s actually about making a real connection with people, and you definitely can’t do that if you can’t communicate.

To make things more complicated, there’s a lot more wrapped up in the word “communicate” than just being able to speak or write well. It’s the way we alter our body language and vocabulary, often without thinking, to fit certain situations. Usually, these are things you learn while growing up. You know that you can’t talk to your boss during an important meeting the same way that you would talk to your friends. You subconsciously know the nuance of the words you choose. Your posture probably changes a bit when you’re trying to appear more professional. You more or less know the social code and how to fit in, even if you don’t realize it. When you move to a different country, these are all things you need to re-learn, especially if the language and culture are extremely different from your home country. Most people aren’t going to stop and teach you all of these differences. It takes time, patience, and a lot of listening to and watching others very, very closely. You always get it eventually. But it can be a slow, slow process, especially if you’re starting from the bottom.

Growing Up

During my first year or so in Japan, I felt like a kid again – I didn’t have the vocabulary I needed to express myself, I couldn’t really understand what was happening around me, and I had to rely on others to take care of me. I really wasn’t ready to start marketing myself as a freelance audio professional over there. You can’t have an in-depth conversation about the deeper meaning of the story in your game or about the details of a contract with a kid. You have to talk like an adult to do that.

After the party, I spent the better part of a year studying Japanese for hours each day. I was able to write that e-mail eventually. But man, I wish I had been able to talk like an adult sooner.

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