Silence is sometimes considered golden. In Japan, silence is communication. As strange as it sounds, in Japanese conversation speaking is often considered unnecessary and sometimes even seems to obstruct harmonious interpersonal relationships. Accepting silence as an alternative to saying what you want to express can be a frustrating ordeal for non-Japanese living in Japan wanting to speak Japanese. As it is considered illogical not to express yourself with words it can takes years getting accustomed to the Japanese way of silent communication.
The Japanese are very cautious not to hurt the feelings of others, nor do they wish to cause trouble for others. They tend to surmise other people’s possible reactions before giving opinions or taking some sort of action. This can result in Japanese doing things they don’t want to do. For example, not leaving a job they are unhappy with because they don’t want to cause trouble for their co-workers. Japanese like to achieve mutual understanding by nonverbal cues rather than by blunt or outright questions or heated discussions. It is all about avoiding confrontation and conflict.
The Art of Japanese Conversation
To the Japanese, silence in conversation ( if there is such a thing) can often convey a far more profound meaning than just…let’s say…eloquence. Western society would see this non-verbal communication as more of a social problem of the Japanese in general. Japanese traditionalists see this silent communication as a highly prized skill. The Japanese language has many proverbial expressions concerning the effectiveness and wisdom of nonverbal communication. “Ishin-denshin” can be taken to mean “Using cultural telepathy” or “mind to heart communication”. “Haragei” is other meaning “art of the belly”. By the unique technique of “haragei” a person makes the other party understand his real intentions without verbal interaction. This ability is regarded as indispensable to influential figures, particularly in political circles.
Unlike most other nations, Japan is a highly homogeneous society, where nonverbal forms of communication can be easily developed and conveniently used in various situations. As Japanese have traditionally depended on “ishin denshin” for much of their communication they are generally turned off by people who, by their standards, talk excessively. In contrast to the Japanese, Westerners, particularly Americans, are noted for being big talkers, with the result that these two widely differing modes of behavior often clash. And believe me they do clash.
In this internationalized world, more and more Japanese think it urgently necessary to change their tendency to implicitness and silence which can cause misunderstanding in inter-cultural communication. Likewise, it does pay for foreign businessmen and politicians to make a point of letting their Japanese counterparts know that they are aware of the “ishin deshin” method of communicating, and that they want to have a mind-to-heart understanding with them.
In order to speak like a Japanese native you have to learn, at times, not to speak at all. This requires a certain amount of patience and faith. “Ishin Denshin” is something you can really only experience by living with Japanese in Japan. When I lived with my wife’s family there was very little conversation between family members. I found it quite challenging to sit through meals and not talk. It took a long time to feel comfortable in a shared state of silence. So, if you want to speak like a Japanese keep in mind that less said will often resonate more than blurting out what you think or feel.