I just wrote a blog piece on the common pitfalls of cultural miscommunication between Americans and Japanese.
Ah. But there’s so much more to this topic. Not just miscommunication, but differences in modes of communication.
I will write on three: silence, humor, and swearing. However, to do this topic justice I would have to write a book.
In Japan, silence is permissible.
Frequently, Japanese TV dramas and movies, when portraying affection between a married couple (especially if they’ve been together for years), the two will sit together in silence.
In real life, this is actually common. In Japan, you feel the energy of affection. In the US, you have to verbally express it.
In international marriages this difference in expectations of communication often can become an issue.
Japanese Wife: “I’m home.”
American Husband: “Hi honey! How was your day? Did that appointment at work go well?
Wife: Silently walks into another room without saying a word.
A married couple not talking to each other in America would mean their relationship is a bad one. In Japan, not necessairly. They enjoy each other’s company without unnecessary fluff banter.
Also in the US family members will frequently say “I love you” to each other. This would be considered strange in Japan.
When I first came to the United States, I would spend entire conversations without opening my mouth. This bewildered many here. In America you HAVE to talk to make sure the group is maintaining healthy communication.
To this day, sometimes I will sit silently while the American group is actively bantering to build rapport. I have to make an effort to take part, not that I can’t do it, but because unnecessary banter wasn’t required from me as a kid in Japan.
Except there are times in Japan where you banter like there’s no tomorrow. Thus to my next topic:
Japanese have a sense of humor? Yes!
Americans sometimes think Japanese are stiff, but Japan has a robust history and culture of humor.
Except you don’t always crack jokes.
Humor in America is like water. You serve it at every occasion, and it’s culturally appropriate to drink healthy levels of it.
In Japan, humor is alcohol. If you drink it, in, let’s say, a job interview, you may not get the job. In the US, the employer may actually interpret humor during the interview positively as a sign of confidence and social finesse. Some situations it’s ok to have a little. A parent-teacher conference, for example. A bit of bantering may happen there. And in certain situations, like a drinking party after work, you drink humor in copious amounts and get “drunk.”
Topics of humor are different as well. The US has a robust Judeo-Christian tradition with many socially sensitive vernacular and issues. Comedians, for example, love using these sensitive issues, topics, and words for jokes at comedy clubs in America.
Japanese comedians like to build stories, point out absurdities in situations, and self-mocking jokes are common also.
I’m funny, in the Kansai sense. I sometimes can make people laugh to tears. Kansai is the region of Japan I grew up in.
My humor is influenced by the Kansai culture. During my cultural assimilation process, people did realize I was funny. But, differently. I would get comments like, “You’re a weird guy, but you sure say some funny sh@t sometimes!”
My sharp wit was honed from years of Kansai banter. But how about swearing with this banter?
You don’t really swear in Japan.
This many times boggles the mind of Americans, who bleep swear words on TV that I myself just wrote as “sh@t” above with the “i” missing.
Americans love to, for the most part, swear.
Japan lacks a strict Judeo-Christian culture. Many of the words that are bleeped on TV in America have to do with defecation, sex, incest, and other topics sins to God.
Japanese people just don’t care. These words do not generate the reactions you get in the US. Or in the West, for that matter.
Japan is about tone of voice. You convey dominance, hostility, and aggression by not what you say, but how you say it. A seemly mild mannered Japanese man, if triggered, can turn into an emotional ball of anger and aggression, all conveyed through tonality (and body language).
So, who wants to go to Japan with me, sit stoically without cracking jokes for some time, and then suddenly explode emotionally?
These things can happen in Japan. In the US this would be a sign of someone crazy.