The importance of context in Japanese communication
There is more to cross-cultural communication than a common language. The mannerisms, the unspoken rules of a dialogue, the very thought process involved can change the meaning of a sentence. Communication is a game people play, with a set of common norms that all parties agree to before any information is exchanged. The complexity of these norms varies from culture to culture, impacting how, and how much information is exchanged.
One academic, Edward T. Hall explained the level of complexity through a scale of what he called high and low context cultures. In his scale, a low context culture is one where most of the information is conveyed through spoken language. One key example of this is the US, where there are written, or unwritten, rules to most things; instructions are always detailed and business contracts are seemingly endless.
Japan stands on the opposite end of the spectrum as a very high context culture. This means that a great deal of the communication is not voiced out loud, but understood through context, non-verbal cues and mutual understanding.
Japan’s context – and what it means for you
Some attribute the high context nature of Japan’s communication style to the idea that throughout its history, Japan has been more culturally and ethnically homogeneous than many European and North American countries.
However, the accuracy of this idea of Japanese homogeneity is a subject of increasing debate in academic circles. Many academics point out the country’s many ties to China and other Asian and European nations throughout its history as a sign of cultural heterogeneity.
Other theories on Japan’s communication style link this high context to the idea that Japanese culture is so heavily reliant on interdependence and harmony. These ideals have shaped Japan into a more consensus-based culture, where a lack of conflict is more highly valued than the direct communication style more prevalent in Europe and North America.
One way to look at this is to see where the emphasis is placed. In most European countries, it is up to the speaker to clarify their message for the listeners and, when misunderstandings occur, it is up to them to speak more clearly. In countries like Japan, the focus is on the listener; it is up to them to contextualise and determine the true meaning behind what is being said.
This means that, when speaking or working with people from Japan, understanding Japanese is not all there is to understanding the meaning of what is being said. Taking into account the situation and non-verbal social cues may make the difference between understanding or misunderstanding the message conveyed.
Reading the air
One phrase which is often quoted when describing Japanese communication is “reading the air” (“kuuki wo yomu”), the ability to read the mood and context in a particular situation to pick up social cues and react accordingly. The phrase is so ingrained into the culture and communication, that there is a pejorative slang term, KY (“kuuki ga yomenai”), dedicated exclusively to describe those who are unable to see the context and understand the real message.
One key example which requires “reading the air” are refusals in Japan. As a culture so focused on preserving harmony, saying “no” outright is considered rude in most situations. In order to turn down a request it is more polite to decline indirectly or avoid answering the question. It’s up to the listener to understand the context. As such, the Japanese have a range of ways to communicate this, from simple and vague excuses to phrases which are understood to mean no but skirt around the refusal, such as “it is difficult” or “maybe”.
Learning by watching
So, what is there to be done? Listening alone is clearly not enough.
It was once a common practice in Japan for a student to receive no guidance from their teacher when learning a trade. The student would observe and learn by watching and imitating the master of the craft at work. In order to learn to communicate effectively and politely, we must take a page out of these students’ proverbial book. Listen, watch, and grow to understand the language that is not spoken, but tells us all that is not said.