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Same Words, Different Meanings in Japan, Mexico and the U.S.
Sarah Fremerman Aptilon
Apr 25, 2012 01:16 AM

Before I went to live in Japan, I thought I knew what the relationship was between words and their meaning. Words meant what they meant. But in Japan I realized that they can also be used to convey sentiments that have little to do with their literal meaning.

I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto for seven years, and in that extremely traditional Japanese environment, I had to learn a new way of talking and listening.

“You get too caught up in the words,” people told me again and again, but I didn’t understand what they meant.

Then I was given a valuable insight into this problem. There was a senior nun in the monastery that I worked with a lot, but I felt that she was often offended or upset when she was around me, and I couldn’t figure out why.

One day she came in as I was working in the kitchen.

“It looks like it’s going to rain, doesn’t it?” she said casually.

“Actually I think it already rained. It just stopped a little while ago,” I said.

She looked annoyed.

“I want to talk to you. Here, sit down,” she said. “When I say something like ‘it looks like rain,’ I’m not really looking for your opinion on that subject. I’m just making conversation, creating a friendly ambiance. You don’t have to analyze it. The best thing is if you just agree with me. Just say ‘sō desu ne.’”

Sō desu ne means “you’re right, yes, I agree,” and at first I was taken aback by her advice—it sounded so hypocritical. What if I didn’t agree with what she was saying? But I tried it. I tried agreeing with everything she said, and our relationship improved dramatically as a result.

That’s when I realized that in Japan it’s not just about the literal meaning of the words—“it looks like rain” can mean a lot of different things. The last one it probably means is simply that it looks like rain. And more than debating literal truths, agreeing can have its own immense value in creating an atmosphere of harmony, wa.

In cross-cultural communication Japan is known as a highly “nonverbal” culture—one that does not depend heavily on words, in contract to my own culture, the U.S., an extremely “verbal” culture. Mexican culture falls somewhere in between on the scale, but is far more verbal than Japan. Still, both Japan and Mexico share an indirect quality—avoidance of conflict—that renders language a buffer, and means that it is often used to lubricate social interactions, while the U.S. language is frequently a vehicle for open confrontation, debate and discussion in ordinary situations that would be out of the question for many Japanese or Mexicans.

In “nonverbal” Japanese culture, silence too is very important. In conversation, people won’t step in until they find a silent moment in which to enter. Because of the Japanese people’s common history and historical isolation, they share a whole range of nonverbal signals. For example, if an employee is telling her Japanese boss about an idea she has for a project and he looks confused, scratches his eyebrow, or sucks in his breath with a hissing sound, that may well mean he doesn’t think the idea is going to work. (And if he says it is going to be “difficult,” that probably means something closer to “impossible.”)

In a nonverbal culture, words may say more than they seem to on the surface, and so does silence. Often the less a person talks, the more respected they are. When I first moved to Kyoto I had only studied Japanese for a month. When I arrived I couldn’t understand anything, and it took me two years before I could have a real conversation.  During all that time, I could hardly express myself.  In the U.S., if you’re silent people assume you don’t have much to say. Meanwhile, in Japan they had great respect for me because of it. They assumed that I was by nature silent, and they thought it reflected a certain amount of wisdom. Later, when I learned to express my opinions in Japanese, we were all disappointed! Then I had to learn what it was OK to say and not to say in Japanese, which took another couple of years.

Mexican culture values the beauty and even the poetry of language, and being concise isn’t necessarily considered a priority in Spanish; on the other hand, Mexican culture has many nonverbal elements that are expressed through words. To ask about someone’s family is to express a feeling of personal interest and friendship. The word ahorita (a diminutive form of ahora, “now”) could mean right now, soon, a long time from now, or never. “Tomorrow” may well not mean tomorrow or even next week. Japanese working in Mexico are always surprised to find out that for many Mexicans work time frames are usually nothing more than statements of good intentions, never firm commitments. It’s like sō desu ne: the other person wants to make you feel good at that moment. The smoothness and friendliness of the interaction is what matters.

Or ask any Mexican about the nonverbal language of horn honking and he will laugh. What might sound to others’ ears like an innocuous little melody, one car to another (they also whistle it at the wrestling matches known as luchas libres) is in Mexico one of the worst insults that one person can visit upon another. In some cases fights have started over that little song.

In the U.S., words matter. That’s why we try to be politically correct: “disabled” becomes “differently abled.” People seek to transform reality, how the world is perceived, by transforming the words to describe it first. Words are often vehicles for literal meaning: no one will be offended if you don’t agree with them about the rain. Yet if someone says “how are you,” most of us are not going to tell the literal truth—we’ll leave it at an innocuous “fine.” The tone of voice of that “fine,” though, may speak volumes.

New research suggests that being bilingual (and therefore bicultural) is good for the executive function of the brain. You can juggle things more easily, discern what is really important. You have to figure out what “it looks like rain” really means in different contexts.  

Ask someone in the U.S. if it looks like rain and they’ll tell you the weather forecast. In Japan they might well agree with your view of the matter. In Mexico maybe it’s going to rain tomorrow.

Sō desu ne.


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