Differences in culture
Sunday, September 21, 2008 11:49:35 PM
For the uninitiated, culture is not merely the outward representations of a society; it's not just that Japanese people take their shoes off when entering a house, or that they bow, or say certain things in certain situations, but it's also concerned with why they do it. Culture is also the way people think, and their attitudes towards the world.
It really extends further than some would think. In relation to language at least, there are obvious differences in appropriate language use (or pragmatics) between Japan and the West. The most obvious would be the levels of politeness shown to social superiors and people from outside the in-group.
Japan (and many other eastern cultures) have what is called a collectivist culture. In a collectivist culture, words are not important for their meaning, but rather the emotional content of a conversation is important. This can be expressed without words; being silent is communication too. Whereas in the West, which is largely individualistic, we are taught to express ourselves through our words; to say what we mean directly and in colorful ways, and silence may be considered inappropriate.
Even conversation has a different makeup in a collectivist culture, especially Japan. Let's consider first the Western model. A conversation is filled with arguments and opinions. Persuasive language is a tool, and the speakers job is to persuade the other, or be persuaded by the other speaker. Of course it depends what you're conversing about, but generally this is how individualist cultures train their speakers to be.
Collectivist cultures largely lack this confrontational, persuasive motive. In Japan, the listener is taught from a very young age to be sensitive to the listener's emotions. The aim is to comply with the listener and seek mutual harmony. For example, you may have heard the saying that Japanese people can't say 'no.' In a culture geared around seeking harmony, to refuse is to disturb the peace.
One manifestation of this notion is to take roundabout ways to express one's opinion, especially (but not limited to) when it's contrary to other's opinions. I remember a saying (but not by who) that in Japanese you could talk for hours without explicitly giving your opinion on anything. Even answering with a はい hai doesn't exactly mean that you agree with something, but rather that you understand.
Japanese has at its disposal many tools to avoid saying something directly. Even the Subject-Object-Verb sentence structure is a handy way to keep the listener wondering what you are going to say; the verb is the most important part of a sentence, and can be negated in Japanese even at the last second.
On top of that is the subject ambiguity; the subject is often ommited in Japanese, sometimes leaving only a verb. Unless you are completely in tune with your conversation partner, you may not even know what they are talking about. This contrasts harshly with English's iron clad rule that every sentence have a stated subject.
Anyway, I seem to have wandered off topic from culture into a more sociolinguisitc area, but I just wanted to express that these, and others, are the kind of hurdles you have to endure and accept when engaging a new culture. You may encounter something from another culture that you consider completely rude, but you have to stop and think "our cultures are just different," and let it pass. On that same note, if you are the visitor, you must be aware and make an effort to learn what is offensive, and not do it.
How about a few examples of how cultures differ in the world. In the West, one generally waits to be asked to sit down, at say an interview or formal occasion, as a sign of respect. In Samoa, however, the sign of respect is lowering your head below your superiors'. Therefore, when they enter a room, they will quickly sit down and lower their head to show respect to the one in higher position. Often this gets mistaken as rude, which must confuse the hell out of the poor guy.
Comfortable distances differ between cultures. To understand what I mean, picture the following situation. You are talking with your company's boss. How far apart do you stand? How about with a close friend? Your spouse? Would you feel comfortable being touched by someone you don't really know? The distances, and touching rules change by the culture. Generally speaking, in Japan the distance is a little further than in American culture. With strangers, a distance of just over a meter (3 feet?) is appropriate. This distance can also reflect social distance (you don't stand close to your boss).
Cultures can be broken into touching and no-touching (with shades in between, and lots of exceptions). Some cultures permit touching a lot (I remember a Chinese guy from high school who I thought was gay because of how touchy-feely he was), and some don't. When these two culture types clash, there can be embarassment or a feeling of violation, but I see touching as a sign of friendship, though New Zealand has no-touching policy. Japan seems to have similar rules to American/European culture about touching: keep it for your closer friends (and not the hot new OL), but like I said, there are exceptions either way, in any culture.
Everything seems to have some kind of cultural rule about it: how loud you speak, how often you speak, who goes first, what is okay to laugh at, what is okay to say, how many times is too many, etc. My advice: learn how to apologize properly and go from there.