Non-verbal communication in Japan

Non-verbal communication in Japan – How I always get in trouble

February 20, 2021

“Japanese people are very cold, aren’t they?”

“Japanese people are awfully serious all the time!”

“I heard that the Japanese are the most polite people in the world”

“Japanese people never complain!”

“Japanese people are _______ (fill in the first word that comes to mind)

What haven’t I heard about the Japanese nation? I hate to say it, but most of these observations are superficial and based on vague rumors and fuzzy memories of people who’ve had very limited interactions with Japanese people.

The truth is that, while Japanese people may share the same citizenship, they’re a very diverse nation, like any nation. Japanese people can be nice, serious, have a developed sense of humor, irritable, warm, egoistic – more or less any prominent personality trait on the scale. I’ll say it plain and simple: I’m opposed to generalizations. Every person is complex and unique.

And yet, Japan has a culture that is very unique and very different from the cultures we are familiar with in Israel. I’m referring not just to behavior in the public space, but also to the interpersonal communication that is done differently here. Why am I bringing this up? Because the same way many Israelis are afraid to hurt the feelings of Japanese people if they don’t treat them with respect, keep in mind that when Japanese people act in a way that is natural to them because of their culture, any of us who are not from the same culture could be offended. Situations have different interpretations, even certain phrases have different interpretations in Japanese culture. The difficult thing is to understand the things that are left unsaid. It’s the art of reading between the lines when the lines are implied and there are no words to hold on to.

Non-verbal communication in Japan

Reading the air

In Japan it’s customary to devote a lot of attention to the situation, the atmosphere and the people around you. So, even without words, I need to be able to understand what’s happening around me and, in light of this understanding, to decide how I should act and what I should say. The Japanese expression for this is Kūki wo yomu, “to read the air”, or translated (very) freely into English: to take in the situation.

An example to demonstrate:
I went to a friend’s house. About an hour later she told me: “Gee, thank you so much for coming! It was fun talking to you!” Meaning: I should go home.

A more extreme example:
I’m standing in line to buy bread at a bakery. The queue is long and the vendors are pressed for time. I really feel like asking the vendor about new bread they’ve started selling. If I “read the air”, I’ll keep my curiosity to myself and ask another time, because other people are waiting.

These are two situations that came to mind immediately, but the truth is there are countless examples. For some of you, these situations might seem straightforward, and it’s obvious to you how one is expected to behave, while others will have a strong feeling of WTF? In any case, in Japan people don’t normally say out loud what they want us to do. Hints and indirect phrases are supposed to be clear enough for us to understand what we should do. The result of “not reading the air” will always be discomfort and displeasure for those around us, and as a direct result, for us, too. And so it’s important to constantly pay attention to what it is we’re expected to do, or the way we’re expected to respond.

But why is that the case?

First and foremost, it’s because in Japanese culture the way to point things out is more polite and less direct. There are those who interpret the “hints” they tend to use in speech as a sincere attempt not to hurt our feelings. But as with any cultural gap, the intention isn’t always what dictates the outcome – another no less important party is the person we’re trying to consider. This party’s interpretations of the situation are just as important, and sometimes this goes terribly wrong. Here are a few situations where I couldn’t stop myself from putting my head in my hands and muttering “oh dear!”.

Non-verbal communication in Japan

Signs that I’m expected to do something

One day I was sitting and talking with an Israeli friend who lives in Kyoto. We were chatting about this and that, and then she told me she went to the same gym I used to go to. She told me that one day, as she was getting out of the swimming pool at the gym, something very unpleasant happened to her:

“One of the staff saw that I was about to get out of the pool and hung a sign in English near the door which read ‘Please dry yourself off well before going to the dressing room.’ It was clearly meant for me – everyone else around me was Japanese! He really waited for me to get out in order to hang up this sign especially for me. It wasn’t nice at all.”

No matter how hard I tried to convince her that for the staff member this was the polite way to inform her, she wasn’t convinced. “Why didn’t he just tell me?!” And I completely get her frustration. Someone who comes from a culture where a decent person is expected to speak the truth face to face could definitely cringe when treated differently. But in that situation it was clear to my friend what was expected of her and what she was supposed to do. I must point out that things can only go downhill from here. Let me give another example, this time a situation that happened to me personally.

My partner and I were sitting in a sushi train restaurant in Kyoto (sushi that goes around on a conveyor belt and the people sitting at the bar take plates for themselves). Even though no one shouted at us “If you’re done eating, get out of here!”, it turns out that was the expectation. How did we discover that? When there was a stack of empty plates in front of us, and we sat relaxing on the bar stools, a staff member came and touched a small sticker affixed to the sushi train in front of us. The edge of the sticker had peeled off slightly and the employee “straightened it out”. Something about it felt strange to me. After the employee had left, I felt an inexplicable curiosity to check what was on the sticker. This was the text in Japanese and English:

“We thank you very much for choosing to dine with us!
We always strive to provide you with tasty food to your satisfaction.
Out of respect for other customers who are waiting outside to come in and eat, please do not linger after you have finished eating.
Try to be considerate of other customers who also want to eat.
We deeply appreciate your cooperation!”

In other words, it wasn’t by accident that the member of staff touched that sticker. And so we took the hint and left, but it didn’t end there. It would be more accurate to say that something began: the freaking out. Loads of freaking out.

Non-verbal communication in Japan

Freaking out

Freaking out that maybe I’m doing something wrong. Freaking out that I’m not taking in the situation as I should. Freaking out that I’m trying to take in the situation, but perhaps I’ve got it completely wrong. Freaking out that every sigh, question or sentence said to me (or not said) could allude to something. Freaking out that I’m missing a hint. Constantly freaking out. And no matter how hard I try, I’m sure to miss something. It’s inevitable.

It’s true that there are more obvious situations, like the time I delayed the bus driver by counting out coins, and he made a show of looking at his watch as if to say “How long is this going to take?!” It was obvious to me then. But there are also less intelligible situations, such as the time when one of the girls who studies with me asked me in an SMS on the weekend what days the trash can be taken out (there are set days at the university). It sounds like it was an innocent question, but the next day when I got to our office and saw that the dustbin was full, I realized exactly why she had asked me. It was a hint directed at me, because I hadn’t taken out the trash even though I was the last person to leave on Friday.

But is it really like that all the time??

Of course in all the years here there have been many situations when I succeeded in understanding what was expected of me – but I’m choosing not to write about them. After all, like most people, we are better at remembering the situations that elicited intense feelings in us. And feeling embarrassed is far more intense than the feeling of relief of “Cool, I understood properly what’s expected of me.”

Over the years, I’ve also started to take things less hard. This is me, and this is the culture I come from, for better or worse. At the end of the day I’m not expected to be Japanese. If I’ve failed the most to take in a situation– so what? We’re all human and we’re all allowed to make mistakes. What’s most important is to try to be considerate and to be attentive to other people, no matter what culture we’re from.

What do you say? Would you prefer non-verbal communication to verbal?
Think you can read the air well? Tell me in your comments!

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