Global Recipes

I had a fascinating conversation a couple weeks that I keep reflecting on. The woman I was speaking with is Japanese but had lived in the US for several years as a child.

We’ve talked a lot about different aspects of Japanese culture, and how my husband and I dissect many of the conversations we have with people in order to come to a correct interpretation of things going on. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about a linguistical interpretation.

This type of interpretation is called “Reading the Air”, which I’ve talked about before.

I’d been mulling over personality types and how that works here (probably the next post!), and I brought up the common thing about communication you are told in the US:

55% of communication is determined by your body language

38% by your tone

7% by your actual words

Living in Japan, I can tell you that this is not a global recipe for comprehension. It ain’t gonna work here.

In discussing it with my friend, we agreed that you must have a working basic knowledge of the Japanese culture and experience to effectively communicate and not totally misread things or take the wrong cues…. Because the Japanese are an insular, island nation, they have a high degree of shared context. So, as a foreigner, contemplation of culture and context is vital.

In the US, where I come from, everyone has a different context (which contributes to individuality, which is valued in America). Shared context, harmony and group are the values here.

I think a more appropriate ratio of combined body language/nonverbal interpretation might be 15% ??This include sounds they make, more minute hand gestures or tilts of the head. If you watch for them, they’re there. But it’s not the typical “surround sound” expressions from home.

Still, that is a big difference.

That’s why we “read the air”, because it’s not predominantly in the body.

In fact, there is a phrase ichi ieba ju wakaru (I say one, 10 is understood). The idea is that when the speaker says 10%, the listener will be able to figure out the other 90% on the basis of the non-verbals and the shared context.  Whereas in America, we feel the need to communicate the full 100%, or even overachieve with an extra 10%.

Let me explain it another way:

“Just because I say this doesn’t mean I think it. I really mean this. If I don’t say this, I don’t mean this, but I do mean this.”

Got it?

We like to “read between the lines” in English and think ourselves clever, but it goes a lot deeper here.

That’s why they have cultural dynamics and phrases* such as:

  • Chinmoku- Using silence in communication
  • Haragei- silently communicating “belly to belly” through intuition rather than with words
  • Inshin denshin- “intuitive understanding, without the use of words or signs, a peculiarly Japanese telepathic communication, as a result of some intimate relationship or bond”
  • Honne/Tatemae- honne being related to the private, true self and tatemae conveys the face the world sees
  • Aimai- the virtue of ambiguity

Hence the reason I scrutinize the conversations and interactions I have, even after 8 years. Granted, it comes a lot more naturally to me now, but I still need to pay attention.

But the point is true: in addition to language acquisition, it’s imperative to have a basic understanding of these concepts, at the least, and how these things play out in everyday life and different levels of relationship here in order to get it right.

So, at the risk of not overcommunicating with my 110% self, I will close this out by letting you imagine what this does to a mind when it visits back home. 🙂

*I borrowed many of the definitions from The Japanese Mind by Davies and Ikeno to give clear, concise definitions of these phrases and words. It’s an excellent book for study if you will be spending time with the Japanese community.


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