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Everyday Conversations / Manners - draft


This is the stage between the final step of making friends and the first step of actually meeting people.
The goal here is to give you a better understanding of stereotypical conversation models, so that differences between Japanese conversations and what you may be used to will not be a problem.


American people typically feel comfortable talking to anyone. For example, at the airport when they're waiting for the plane or with people who they are sitted next to in the plane. Some Japanese, especially older people, talk to people they are seated next to on the train or plane, this particular sort of incident is still pretty rare, and in general, Japanese people hesitate to talk to people they don't know.

One of the reasons for this hesitation is that they don't know how to stop the conversation once they start it. They are afraid of being awkward after ending the conversation. It is often said that Japanese is a high context language, in which it is considered better to be quiet than be loud or talkative. However, Japanese people hate silence during the conversation and most feel pressured to break these awkward pauses.

Americans, by contrast, do not feel this compulsion and can stop the conversation whenever they want. Their subconscious ability to terminate the conversation or then start another conversation again at will is very strong.

Japanese and American Conversation model
  • Japanese: catch ball
Basically the movement of a Japanese style conversation is throw-catch-return-catch-return....
Therefore people are expected to throw balls that are easy to catch so that the other person can easily return them. If the topic is hard to catch or throw back, the conversation will fail, and if there is nothing that the other person can "return the ball with," the conversation will end.

For example, in cell phone e-mail communication, if you want the message to continue, you are expected to add some questions so that the other person has something to reply to. Otherwise they might just read and not feel the need to reply, or just reply with a simple answer like "I see" and the conversation will end.

  • American: bowling
People can throw out any topic, and someone else will find something interesting to base their response on and then conversation will continue.

Therefore there is no need to worry about a conversation topic. It can be said they are good at catching any sort of ball that may be thrown, whereas Japanese are not good at catching balls that are not thrown directly to them.

Argument and Specific conversation topics
Basically, Americans tend to engage in arguments more often, even in daily conversation. Japanese people, on the other hand, do not like to argue at all.

To avoid arguing, when Japanese people talk to someone who they are not close with, there are taboo topics such as politics, religions, and baseball. For Americans however, politics and religon are considered good discussion topics since "arguing" these topics will allow you to get to know the other person better.

Non-verbal Language
One thing that OYRs must look out for in the course of their interaction with Japanese people is ambiguity. It is important to understand that a large part of Japanese culture the abiltiy to say things indirectly and one is expected to be able to "read the atmosphere," a concept refered to as "KY."

Physical Contact
Physical contact is a popular greeting among western cultures. In contrast, it is rare in Japan and can be used only among people with close relations such as family or lovers. It is also said that Japanese people's personal space space is wider than that of westerners, so Japanese people may feel their personal space has been intruded upon even though westerners see it is as a normal distance. Personal space is private, and can be both physical and mental, which is why people feel uncomfortable when someone enters their space.


The 'physical cnotact issue' story:
A Japanese girl went to the UK. She stayed at the house of an older British man as a homestay. Every time she came back to the house, the British man hugged her as though she were his daughter.
He behaved this way around everyone, however, the Japanese girl did not like his hug. She said to us "彼は私にセクハラをしている"。(this is sexual harassment) The British man did not know she felt this way, but her feelings seemed to be clear after awhile. Because of this issue, the British man felt awkward as though he could not be close to the girl.
Physical contact was a normal greeting and the old man never thought she minded it, but in fact, she was nervous and worried about the physical contact all the time.

Non-verbal communication story
At the welcome party for new comers held in our dormitory, we (the OYRs) were given the privilege of getting food first. After getting our share, we immediately started eating while everyone else stood quietly in line to get their food. Some time passed by when suddenly, one of our dorm mates (who was American) told us to stop eating. My fellow OYRs and I were shocked and immediately stopped eating. It turned out that we were supposed to wait for everyone to get their food and then eat together. When we asked why no one told us, she said they were too shy to speak up. I scanned the room and all I could see were expressionless faces who are trying to avoid looking at our direction. It was quite awkward.

Solution / Recommendation / Suggestion etc.

It seems that the typical image of a Japanese, from an outsider's point of view, is that they are "shy" and "sensitive" and they feel the need to be "thoughtful" to others. Americans, on the other hand, are generally stereotyped as "active" and "outgoing."

Because of these stereotypes, it may seem that Japanese and American styles are exact opposites, which would make it impossible for them to communicate well. The Japanese may seem shy and senstive because they are so worried about the flow of the conversation. The easy solution for Japanese people is to not think too much and to focus on being themselves when meeting new people. Talk about whatever you want. Talk about what's going on; what you did recently, your plans, what you've been busy with, etc.

The best thing for foreigners to remember is that Japanese people are naturally "shy" and "sensitive" in comparison, so they should try to take the initiative in conversations and make the other person feel comfortable and 'at home' with you.

Personal space and physical contact may depend on the personality of each individual, but an understanding of each other's culture is also important.