I was driving to work a while ago and heard a short story on the radio about etiquette and rituals in Japanese business culture, and though I personally am not very interested in business, a part of the discussion caught my ear:
“…What’s really important is understanding the different styles of communication that different cultures have. Like American’s reputation for being direct. And the Japanese’ predilection for what Morimoto says is just the opposite. The Japanese, say Morimoto, often say no to saying no.
“They feel hesitant to say I don’t like your product,” Morimoto says. “So they say something like, ‘Oh that’s a good idea. Let us think about it.'”
“Yes” in Japan doesn’t mean the same thing as “yes” in English. Instead, notes Morimoto, it could mean, “We just met, and I don’t think it’s polite for me to say no right away.”
“Or they say, ‘Yes, yes.’ But yes means, ‘Yes, I’m hearing you.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean, ‘Yes, I like it,’” she says. “It can be yes-yes, or it can an iffy-yes, or it can be a no-yes.”
To decipher what’s really being said, you need more information, Morimoto says.”
This was of course, a very specific discussion limited to a comparison of different business communication styles in Japanese and American contexts, but it reminded me that learning language is much more than learning vocabulary and the grammar structures to fit it in. And if we want to be language teachers and learners who also want to promote peace, the ‘meaning between words’ needs to be considered in our instruction as well. Miscommunication with these subtle meanings often can cause the most misunderstanding, and create seemingly intractable conflict.
I’ve experienced this myself with a friend and the English phrase, “I don’t care.” To my friend, a non-native speaker of English, it was a neutral phrase. Literally, “I don’t have a leaning in either direction towards that thing you have just said; it doesn’t affect me.” To me, I heard the phrase as it is often used in English to mean, “It doesn’t affect me, and I also don’t think that what you’re saying is really worth considering in any way.”
I ended up feeling very hurt, and my friend felt frustrated that I interpreted what he said in a way he didn’t intend. It’s easy in that space to blame the other person for either speaking or listening without considering the other person’s linguistic context. It would have been easier if both of us had thought carefully about implied meaning and whether or not the other person might know the same implied meanings as we did.
So, knowledge about so-called ‘hidden meaning’ is something very important in peaceful communication, but also an area that is very difficult to teach! So I’m curious about your thoughts–
How might it be possible to help our students learn about and be aware of implied meaning?
How can we teach it in a way that doesn’t make them feel more anxiety when trying to speak another language?
How can we become more aware of it ourselves?