Imagine yourself in the middle of a beautiful field full of flowers (your preference), a lovely partly cloudy day with a gentle breeze and whispering trees in the distance. Your tour guide leads you down an unmarked path and as you go conversing, you realize that you’re slowly making a giant circle. Soon, you will be approaching the spot you just stood in to take the scenic selfie a few moments ago.
Welcome to the cultural dynamic that I’ll call the invisible mountain.
Note that to your tour guide, this mountain is very real, very steep and full of rocks. But to you, it’s just a field a beautiful flowers.
When maneuvering through a different culture, you will eventually and inevitably recognize that this seemingly peaceful terrain has mountains scattered here and there and… well… everywhere.
So what do you do? Well, step one (which would be good to do before making the trip in the first place) is reading up on cultural dynamics and communication patterns of the people you are with. That way, you’ll have a general layout of the land.
The next tip (and I’m no expert, but this is my tip from having run into a few mountains myself) is to not approach things directly.
DON’T DO IT.
Stop. Don’t be too anxious to give your opinions or views of the matter. Listen. Listen some more. Watch intensely. Pay attention to what’s said, the way it’s said and don’t forget about what wasn’t said.
Wait, that sounds complicated. I told you– the mountain is invisible.
One of the things that makes this more challenging is that when you are in another language, you automatically say things more directly no matter what. Things are more cut and dry in the first few chapters you’re mastering while language learning. It’s only later that you realize people typically have many ways to say the same thing and they get longer and longer. Or as we used to say about Spanish, they get more and more flowery.
And when you’ve mastered the flower decor, you’re getting a good handle on the language.
I’ll give you a simple example that everyone learns on page 1:
Where’s the bathroom?
We all learn that phrase. But let’s face it, if you as an American went into a store and just walked up and asked, “Where’s the bathroom”, it would come across as rather blunt. Wouldn’t you usually say, “Excuse me, but is there a restroom here?” “Excuse me, where is the ladies’ room??
It’s just a little more finessed. Not a big difference, but it’s there.
In English, Spanish and Japanese (that’s all I can speak for), there is more than one way to say bathroom or restroom, but you don’t learn that until later.
One mountain we’re still learning to identify here is honne and tatemae. Honne is one’s true feelings while tatemae is, gently put, pretense. Here you do not usually express your true feelings; you say what you need to say to keep the harmony (and there are other layers of factors to consider here too).
There was one time where I was in a group situation in which a foreigner called out a Japanese, expressing their true feelings about a situation. Let me tell you, it immediately got awkward. For my part, I froze. I waited. Many awkward pauses as only the foreigner spoke. I listened as eventually all the other Japanese all diplomatically expressed their understanding of both parts of the situation without ever really addressing the core issue. Meanwhile, we had a foreigner who was convinced they were right and valid in their point, while the Japanese was mortified.
Afterward, another in the group came up to me, gave an exhausted sigh and said, “Wow, that conversation was way too frank.”
Whether the foreigner was justified in their perspective on the situation, it should not have been handled in the way that it was.
There’s a Japanese expression which always gets some titters from Americans. It’s called “kooki yomenai” people, or KY for short. But it refers to people who can’t read the air. And that’s important here.
Someone this summer, as we were discussing the difficulty in knowing how to interpret these situations, asked us, “So, what do you do?”
Good question, we answered. Indeed.
We’re still learning. But opening your mouth is not the first solution (even if you are correct and have the answer). You watch for the minutest of expressions (I’m talking about a momentary twitch, a change of sheen of the eye, a thoughtful pause), you listen. You pay attention to what’s not said and what’s hinted at. Ask open-ended questions, not hinting at what you think or how you interpret things. That’s one of my preferred mistakes: to explain what I understood and my perspective and then ask if I was correct/etc.
Not the smartest approach.
Eventually the mountain will begin to take shape in your mind. And someday… someday, you might end up with a map of your own making of the terrain.