Tuesday, 30 July 2013


Exactly half of our 話す・聴く classes involved the teacher distributing a passage from a Japanese-language book on Japanese culture, everyone reading over it in the intervening week, and then coming together to share impressions in the next class. Given the cultural angle, they were mostly on dryly factual topics such as 有り合わせ (rummaging through the fridge and jury-rigging dinner out of whatever happens to be in there) and Japanese religious customs (they're Shintou-Buddhists in practice but atheists at heart), which, while interesting, don't exactly lend themselves well to spirited debate. Most of the rest of the time we worked off a video, but sometimes we did something completely different. One day, for example, the teacher brought in some printouts from a Business Japanese textbook, and we talked about where everybody sits in a taxi and why it's unbecoming to answer 「スミスさん、もう仕事慣れました?」 with 「いやぁ、まじやばいっす!」。

And then a little while ago we did what's called a 討論 touron. This was a new term for me, but it means a group discussion with the goal of arriving at a consensus, and it's apparently a common section of the job interview process – throw a handful of hopefuls at each other and see who the most effective communicators are. We were split into two groups, each of which would have a turn, after which the other would choose a single “winner.” The teacher advised us to keep in mind a few critical points, the most salient of which was that everybody should, individually, be doing more listening than talking. Obviously in groups of four this just makes mathematical sense, but I knew immediately that this was going to be a challenge for me. In my experience, Western culture takes a more congenially adversarial approach to debate, meaning that being a polite and skillful interlocutor is not about acknowledging the probable veracity of all opposing arguments, but rather about systematically annihilating all opposing arguments while not being an asshole about it. This gets back to a point I wrote about earlier: In summary, English communication is transitive, Japanese communication is receptive.

Despite this, I immediately took the helm, simply because, despite evidence to the contrary, I am pretty damn alpha in most situations. It's not like this is exactly a foreign atmosphere for me; being Vice President of my Canadian university's Japanese Club taught me how to run a meeting, how to manage time, how to summarize and proceed, and how to know when to let people get off topic and when to gather them back in. To be honest, I had a little bit of a plan, which mainly involved taking control right away, because I knew that once I had it, maintaining it would be easy. The teacher had mentioned that another thing to be conscious of was who had shown the most “leadership” in the touron, so to open things up I pulled a trick out of my Background in Philosophy bag and asked that we define our terms: Our topic was “what limitations should be put on children using the Internet,” so I asked, Until what age, for the purposes of this discussion, do we consider someone a child? We quickly agreed to define a “child” as elementary school-aged. All having accepted this definition, I sprung my first trap, such as it was, suggesting that surely nobody thinks that we should ban children from using the Internet entirely, so we can then work from that baseline?

I was assuming, of course, that nobody would, which was the basis for my entire outline, in which I intended to gradually add limitations and caveats to the mixture until we had arrived at a reasonable conclusion. My mistake was in thinking that most people would agree with me. I was of the opinion that, in this technology-centric Information Age of ours, children should be allowed to use the Internet almost without restriction, basically excepting only pornography, dangerous liaisons, and blatant misinformation. This was pretty stupid, and I should really have planned for the possibility of somebody going the other way, because, as it happened, all of them did. Right from the start, I had to throw away my whole plan.

The only person who actually noticed my misstep was the teacher himself, and he found it hilarious, just because he imagined my internal reaction to be one of scrambling to find a new angle, with my original idea in ruins and nothing to fall back on. Know what though, that really wasn't the case. I took the hit and moved on, formulating a new plan on the fly and running with it. I think I actually deserve credit for that, if anything. Rather than fumbling and folding, I affirmed grace under pressure. That's a desirable skill in a prospective employee, wouldn't you say?

Funny enough, my initial failure even worked to my advantage, as while easily persuading them to my point of view would have left everybody with little to say, and pure domination would have made me look quite inconsiderate, we were instead able to talk things through and hammer out an understanding. In fact, they convinced me, which is certainly uncommon. It actually turned out to be a genuinely interesting discussion, which was quite pleasant, and certainly better than can be said of the other group, which just talked in circles around each other. I'd thought fifteen minutes would stretch into eternity, but it flew by. Everybody found my overly Japanese declarations of 「なるほど」and 「はい、分かりました」to be quite amusing, for some reason, but I was mostly trying to do them in imitation of the teacher, who is quite naturally the discussion leader most of the time.

I thought I did pretty well, and so did the other group, which couldn't quite decide between me and the Korean guy. “Rude Boy showed the most leadership and did a good job at organizing the discussion, and drawing out everyone's opinions,” they said, but the Korean guy “did the best job of bringing those opinions together.” The teacher disagreed, though he was torn, rather, between the Korean guy and the Chinese guy, who “made the most conscious use of time,” i.e. talked neither too much nor too little.

“But,” he said, “Rude Boy did clearly lead the discussion, and he did a good job. So if he'd been a little less concerned about expressing his own opinions and spent a little more time listening to the others, I'd have said he was the best.” I was startled. I thought I had been listening to the others! What must have happened, though, was that every time I tried to indicate my comprehension of another person's viewpoint, I did it by summarizing, and sometimes using what they said as a jumping-off point into the next section. So the whole time, where I thought I was being receptive and attentive, I was coming off as forceful and self-centred! It really is tough to find that sweet spot sometimes, isn't it? This is definitely something I'll have to watch in the future, because from what I hear, being a team player is even more critical in the Japanese corporate world than in the English-speaking one, and I reeeeeally don't want to come off like I don't play well with others. Still, at least I learned something.

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