Sep 17, 2013

May be Yes, May Be No, May be I don’t know !

This is part 3 of my “Japan and I” Series. To read the previous posts, Please click here.

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. 
For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners. 

Through this series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! 

Today we talk about the Japanese and their very baffling conversation style !


 For all my years of working with the Japanese the one thing that exasperates me the most is their inability to say No. Instead of refusing a request directly, they will give you vague, ambiguous answers that will simply confuse and baffle you.

If there is one race that has perfected the art of Diplomacy, It is the Japanese. Qualities such as being straight forward and frank that are admired by the rest of the world are considered uncouth and barbaric by them. They feel that a direct refusal is very impolite and lacking in aesthetic sensibility. Instead they rely on subtle nuances and euphemisms to get their point across.

While interacting with the Japanese, one has to learn to read between the lines because what is left unsaid in the conversation is more important than what is actually said. When the Japanese say things like “Let me think about it”,” It looks difficult”, “Ahh I see …. “ they are using them as mere euphuisms for saying No. This can be very misleading for people not well versed in Japanese culture and norms.

Translation from Japanese to English is extremely difficult not just because the language is tough, but because to be able to interpret accurately one has to understand the meaning behind the words rather than directly translating them. Sometimes a whole lot is literally lost in translation simply because the translator is not able to catch the actual intent of the speaker. This leads to a lot of tearing of hair and banging of heads in frustration by all concerned!

Here are a few examples:

What the Japanese Say: “This looks like an interesting proposal. We will think about it.”

What they really mean: “This is a terrible proposal and we are throwing it in the dustbin!”

What the Japanese Say: “It looks difficult to me. But let me see what I can do”

What they really mean: “It’s completely impossible and I am not going to waste any time over it.”


They are also masters in making a conversation go round and round in circles. Many years back, when I was still new to the workings of the Japanese mind, I tried to rent an apartment in Osaka. Here is the very interesting conversation I had with the manager of the building.

Ruch:”I would like a corner apartment please”

Manager: “I see. You want a corner apartment. then”

Ruch:”Yes, please”

Manager : “We have a lot of other rooms that have a nice view”

Ruch: “Yes, but I prefer a corner apartment”

Manager: “Our other apartments are equally good …. “

Ruch : “Yes, but as I said I prefer a corner one … “

Manager: “Ahhh …. Umm …It’s a long walk from the lift though … “


And we both went on and on until it dawned on my thick skull that there were no corner apartments available and that he had been trying to say no to me all along.

The main reason for all this ambiguity is that the Japanese love harmony in everything including relationships and so try to avoid confrontation and conflict at all costs. Also by being indirect about a refusal they are basically saving the other person from embarrassment and loss of face. 
They also prefer to show disagreement in a non-verbal way such as tone and body language rather than in actual words.

It is not as if the Japanese are always so vague. On the contrary they are very precise and clear while explaining things. For example their technical or Business Processes will always be very explicit and detailed. The ambiguity sets in only during their interactions with others.

As a language, Japanese has the capability of expressing itself fully. It is just that the Japanese social norms and culture forbids its people to be so direct and forthright.

38 comments:

  1. The conversation says it all. This running around the bush becomes even more exasperating for Straightforward Delhi walas.

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    1. Believe me Alka, It is very exasperating !

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  2. Oh Gosh, how exasperating! I would go completely nuts there :). But I so admire their work ethic. I love these posts you are doing. They are opening up a new world for me.

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    1. Thank you Rachna. I am glad you enjoy these posts. You are right, their work ethic is amazing. Infact you can learn a lot from them.

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  3. Oh God, I'd go suicidal there!

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  4. They sound like really nice people, even if they drive you crazy with the verbal beating around the cherry blooms. I like how you put it, Ruchira - "The main reason for all this ambiguity is that the Japanese love harmony ... by being indirect about a refusal they are basically saving the other person from embarrassment and loss of face." Find me a job in your Japanese MNC will you? :)

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    1. Sometimes Sakshi they are so nice that it tests my patience :)

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  5. Then a Japanese person will be taken for a ride if he lands up in the rowdy and rude Delhi....he he...nice take...now I will know exactly how to interpret whenever I interact with a Japanese person next...thanks!

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    1. True Shaivi. The Japanese are often taken for a ride when they come here.

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  6. Japanese are good in talking but it's tough to get work done. My cousin is also currently in Osaka and he also shares his experiences and they are the same! Thanks for sharing the Japanese culture with us all.

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    1. Its tough to get work done till you understand them. Once you get used to the way they function, Its a delight to work with them !

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  7. Fan of ur japan series and that apartment convo made me laugh. In India we will say that he is a crazy idiot if some one answers like that but good that U came to know their behavioral traits :)
    interesting

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    1. I learnt about their Behavioral traits the hard way Afshan :)

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  8. That's crazy, yaa! Gosh! I would go bonkers in such a situation of no clear cut answers..

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  9. oh am i not learning first hand.....the project manager of our ADB funding team is a Jap, and he says all those things.... luckily for me, my Director (a lady) takes him by the horns and usually gets her way!!!

    http://www.myunfinishedlife.com

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    1. My sympathies are with you :)They are not the easiest of people to deal with !

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  10. Once we know the cultural norm, it's easy to pick up on the indirect refusal; otherwise, it would definitely be exasperating! I love that they are actually trying to be sensitive and not embarrass another person by directly refusing to look at a project!

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    1. Yes, that's the beauty of it - That they are so sensitive and considerate towards others. Something to learn from them there !

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  11. OMG!! It would be crazy if one is not aware of their inability to say No!!
    Very interesting insights about Japanese culture!! :)

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    1. Yes they do drive you crazy at times :) Thank you Shlpa. I am glad you enjoy reading them !

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  12. I am just trying to fathom the early days of Japanese - American cooperation. Two diametrically opposite cultures! No wonder they went through a World War before they became friends!
    This is such a fantastic series.

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    1. What a nightmare it must have been for those first Americans who landed on Japanese soil ! I wonder if they are still friends though :)
      Thank you. Glad you like the series !

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  13. You make it sound as though it will be more useful to learn dumb charades than Japanese when it comes to communicating with them :)

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    1. You know actually dumb charades might be a safer bet :)

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  14. Very informative post. So many of these things I have learnt while working with my current Japanese Customer. I have always found them very humble and love the wasy they write emails.

    Regards,
    Vivek

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    1. Welcome here Vivek. Glad you found it informative. They are indeed and their e-mail netiquettes will make another post altogether :)

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  15. I love this series Ruchira! And yeah Japanese are way too polite to say no.

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  16. Oh this is so infuriating. Thanks for telling us. Now I can read between the lines if ever I come across japaness crew onboard n warn my husband before hand.

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  17. I think I was Japanese in my previous birth. I too find it extremely difficult to say no. My ears go red and I start sweating.
    I am trying really hard to come out of this Indo-Japanese mode.
    Great series!

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  18. Hi, It was a new world to me as I have never been to Japan.

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  19. I've heard that the Japanese are amazingly courteous, too. In some sense, the conversation reminds me of my beloved Hyderabad - where we have the "parsoan" culture - and that parsoan could be the day after tomorrow, or infinity. :-) Such an enjoyable post, Ruchira!

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