Saturday, 9 February 2013

Communication styles

As part of my ongoing efforts to absorb myself into the folds of the Japanese people around me (whether or not this is actually possible and to what extent is a subject for another discussion), I of course endeavour to make use of their communication style as much as possible. I've long since adopted their typical gesticulations and cadence. I assemble constructions through imitation. I modify my jokes to appeal to them in a way I wouldn't to Canadians; in particular I have lately been trying to tone down my use of sexual humour, at least among Japanese who aren't used to me yet.

But one aspect that I've always struggled with has been a much more fundamental element of the differences in communication style between Japanese and “Westerners.” The annoyingly overzealous will harp on about honne and tatemae, sociologists will talk about how they've been inculturated with a different set of communicative mechanisms, and so on, but I would like to characterize it as the “burden of transmission,” after the philosophical burden of truth. Basically, I submit that the Western style of communication puts the burden of transmission on the speaker, while the Japanese (Asian?) style puts it on the listener.

In English, I tend to be considered an extremely effective communicator. (Whether that comes through in this blog or not, I have no idea...) If I say something to you, unless I am being deliberately deceptive you're going to know exactly what I mean. I do it through my intonation, my body language, and, most skilfully, in my choice of words, so that there can be no mistake about the message I'm shooting at you. This precision is valued in my home society, where it's my responsibility to say what I mean, and failure to do that indicates some form of mistake on my part.

(Of course, since I perceive myself as being so good at it, I tend to view any miscommunication as caused by some intellectual deficiency of the person on the receiving end – a feeling I have to curb in Japanese, since obviously my still-developing language abilities are much more often the culprit.)

In Japan, however, it is instead the ability to comprehend and interpret that is considered the mark of a great communicator. This requires an attention to detail, observation of subtle hints, and taking heed of unvoiced implications. The most important information may actually be embedded in what someone doesn't say. It's here that I tend to run into problems, because I have yet to disabuse myself of the subconscious belief that dicking around with that stuff is above my pay grade. Go gather your thoughts for a bit and come back to me when you can string together a logical narrative, I got stuff to do.

In other words, whereas English demands clarity of expression from the speaker, Japanese requires active receptiveness of the listener. My home culture places the burden of transmission on the broadcast tower, my adopted one puts it on the antenna.

One time after English Club I tried to see if anybody wanted to go grab some dinner. One guy was up for it, and on our way there we ran into Takamatsu. We asked her to come along and she seemed to straddle the line, as if wanting to go but not sure if she should. I gently persuaded her that it would be fun, until eventually she agreed that yeah, ok. I was totally unaware up until this point that I had done anything wrong, because if she really didn't want to she could have made an excuse (“Homework!”) or just said she didn't feel like it, and no hard feelings if so. Cause it's her job to tell me, right? It's not on me to sacrifice a goat and divine her will in the pattern of its entrails.

Unfortunately when she was gone for a moment the guy explained to me that, while it wasn't a big deal, I had unknowingly kind of forced the outing on her, a bit of a social miss. I should have understood her hesitation to mean an unwillingness to offend by refusing, rather than an unwillingness to offend by intruding. I'd assumed she would come to me, she expected me to go to her, nobody even tried to meet halfway and we ended up totally failing to connect.

Luckily it did turn into a fun evening and we even paid for her because her birthday was that weekend, and we have hung out since then as well, so don't go thinking that I'm a completely oblivious prick or anything. But since little misunderstandings like this crop up from time to time I have made a mental note to take greater care.


  1. Hi,

    I just recently discovered your blog and have found it extremely insightful and compelling. I am interested in our shared experience of living in Japan.

    I am living and working in Osaka but outside the "foreigner bubble" - in fact I rarely meet any foreigners. Your knowledge of Japanese language and culture is far, far in advance of mine so I have been able to learn a lot by reading your posts, as well as nodding in recognition at the aspects that are familiar to me.

    That's all for now - I just wanted to let you know that I'm reading. Best of luck, Dara.

    1. Hi there, thank you so much for the kind words! I'm glad to hear I've been of some help ^-^ Outside the bubble is definitely the way to go if you can manage it! Looks to me like you've got a great attitude, as well, which as we know is all-important in experiencing the best of wherever you happen to be. I hope I can keep entertaining! Thanks again for the shout!