Behind the Communication-Less Japanese Communication Style

I know, it doesn't matter anymore. Long gone are the days of "mysterious Japanese people" getting front page coverage from The New York Times. "China" is where the spotlight is on. We cannot blame the media; its attitude remains neutral (so they say), but what pays their salaries is covering what's hot. As George Orwell said, all news subjects are equal, but some are more equal than others.

But maybe focusing on Japan still matters, because understanding Japan should indirectly lead to understanding China, considering the long and tangled history shared by these countries. The recent feuds between them are sibling rivalries, after all.

Today I would like to focus on one of the deepest chasms that divide the East from the West: the expression-less Japanese expression. Imagine you are a first-time foreign tourist in Tokyo. You have asked a question to a friendly-looking local person in a way that deviates from textbook English expressions, such as "Do you have the time?" Or you might have made a request that does not exist in the Japaniverse: "Can you make a vegetarian version of the deep-fried cutlet? And please leave the garlic out." Congratulations, you have just received a blank stare as a reward.*

What happened is that you have stepped onto a tipping point: Expectation (the East) vs. Expression (the West). Maybe in the place you grew up, when you face miscommunication, you simply speak out. The responsibility of clarifying the situation and maintaining a healthy communication falls on you, the initiator: You need to make the other side understand.

In Japan, the responsibility falls on the other side: the receiver. You are expected to understand the given message and act properly, as a listener. In order to maintain a healthy communication, active listening skills–including reading non-verbal cues of the speaker (who is usually more senior than the listener)–becomes important.

Mix the above two scenarios, and you'll get this picture: The (Western) speaker waits for the (Eastern) listener to speak up, and the (Eastern) listener waits for the (Western) speaker to explain more. A Zen-like silence might dominate the scene. Quite contrary to the tranquility on the surface, the inner worlds of these two people become chaotic. One side is questioning "Why don't you say what the problem is?" and the other side "What does he (or she) want?"

This is what is going on in their mind (watch from 1:30).  

This Catch-22 situation is like a computer showing nothing but a blue screen–we think it is frozen, but in fact the computer is running as fast as it can–inside the same subroutine loop, endlessly.

Who holds the key for escape? It's the speaker, for now. Isn't it much easier to change the topic than to wait for a solution to come up? So if you're in the said situation, maybe you can simply point a finger toward your left wrist to ask for the time, or randomly pick an item in the menu and mutter "Kore Kudasai (Give me this)." Life is a box of chocolates.  

* Being  Japanese myself, I am going to stand up for those poor waitresses who have to endure fussy requests from fussy customers. Girls, you have two perfectly legitimate options:

  • A: Shove this message into that dude's mouth: Dear customer, with all due respect, you are in a CUTLET restaurant.
  • B: Keep staring at him. When you smell danger, the best way to save your ass is to pretend you don't understand a thing. It's universal.

P.S. Blogging will be a weekly stuff – I will see how disciplined I have become during this hiatus.