Friday, August 5, 2011

In Japan, What is Unspoken is Often More Meaningful

If you think that merely knowing how to speak Japanese means you are turning Japanese then you are sadly mistaken. In Japan, facial expressions, body language and unspoken words often hold more meaning than actual Japanese words themselves. It is said that oral language is only a small part of communication. Nonverbal communication is what delivers the message.

Kinesics is body language. It is about wordless messages. Sending and receiving is done through gestures, postures, facial expressions and other forms of body language. In the movie Rising Sun, Sean Connery plays an ex policeman and an expert on Japanese culture and affairs while his co-star Wesley Snipes plays a detective. They investigate a murder wherein a son of a wealthy businessman from Japan is implicated in the crime. At one point in the investigation, Connery’s character explains to the character of Snipes that it is not what the Japanese say but what they do not say that’s important.

In Japan, more than in any other country in the world, understanding body language and interpreting it correctly is very important. You can avoid both unpleasant and embarrassing situations as well as gain the respect of the locals you are trying to communicate with if you know how to read their body language..

Take for example eye contact. In the United States and in other countries, not looking the person directly in the eye is considered rude. In Japan, when you look at a person’s eyes directly, that person will find you rude and aggressive. Maintaining direct eye contact with someone more superior than you is viewed as impolite. No eye contact is a way of showing respect in the Japanese culture. In a crowd, it is a way of giving others privacy. So where do you look if not the eyes? Most Japanese look around the area of the Adam’s apple or the neck; you should do the same.

Another body language that most Westerners do not see as rude is pointing at something with one’s index finger. The Japanese culture dictates that pointing should always be done with the whole hand.

When you frown while someone is talking, the Japanese may see this as communicating disagreement with the person speaking. The Japanese often show no expression when speaking.

During a conversation with a Japanese, you may hear him make a hissing, inhaling sound through his clenched teeth. This can indicate a number of things. One, he disagrees with what you said. Two, he is reluctant to give you an answer. Three, he is thinking. Sometimes, he might even tilt his head when he makes this sound. When this happens, wait patiently for an answer. It is the Japanese way of saying, “Let me see.”

Silence is golden in the Japanese culture. It is actually a big part of their communication process. They can tolerate long periods of silence compared to westerners. Silence can mean different things. It may mean that the Japanese is still thinking or it can also mean disapproval, resistance, reluctance or disappointment at what was said or the behavior that was displayed. It can also indicate that the situation is making him uncomfortable.

Other body language to watch out for:

• Japanese men scratch the backs of their heads when they are embarrassed.
• Japanese women cover their mouths when they laugh.
• When they wave one hand in front of them, it means “No.”
• The gesture meant to indicate “shoo” or go away in other cultures actually means “come here” in Japan.
• A Japanese points to his nose instead of his breast to say “Who? Me?”

The Japanese always strive for harmony in all aspects of their daily lives. They depend on the other person’s facial expressions, gestures, posture and tone of voice to indicate what the other person feels. When you are speaking to a Japanese, be patient. Watch his body language and watch yours as well. Unlike many Westerners, the Japanese are indirect. One has to understand both the spoken and unspoken language.

Traveling to Japan soon? Make sure you are aware of Japanese kinesics. This will help you avoid embarrassing situations in the Land of the Rising Sun.


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