See the introduction to this series here: Letting The Chips Fall Where They May
Tip #1: “You is a very Fluid Concept”
Tip #2: “Man the FUCK up!”
Tip #4: Let Your Smile Be your Guide!
Tip#5: Be A Baller!
Tip# 8: Do Something Beautiful
And now for tip #9…
In the 2008 series I advised readers to Be Patient
I love that post and stand by it 100%
Particularly sections like this:
“I’ll try to illustrate this using computer terminology (though I know squat about computers, I have enough general knowledge to make this modest analogy.) Think of Japan as an operating system. An OS written in the Gaman language. Sure, their OS was inspired by Western operating systems, so on the surface it might look a lot like your own OS. Has many of the same features and principles, like the difference between a MAC and a PC, or a Toyota Camry and a Ford Taurus. But, when you come to Japan and try to run your software in their OS, forget it! You’ll get all kinds of system errors. Keep it up and at some point you’ll get that Blue Screen of Death error and you’ll know you really fucked up! I know. I’ve gotten it at least once!”
But for this Re-Mastered series, I’m gonna go in a slightly different direction. I’m gonna talk a bit about communicating in Japan.
Most people will tell you that the most important aspect of communication is listening. The person with the keenest listening skills will generally be the one getting the most out of any interaction, for they will have learned the most from the interaction.
The one great thing about living in a foreign country where your mother tongue is not the tongue spoken by the natives is that you learn the power of your other senses and the essential role they play in communication, in understanding and in being understood. Of course if you’ve spent your life neglecting those other senses, you’ll probably be at a disadvantage for a while, but eventually, if you’re like me, you’ll come to acknowledge the invaluable and yet often intangible contribution these other senses make to the conversation, and to respect and depend on them as much as you do speech itself.
It’s a bonanza that, as a writer, I can feel the full benefit of every time I sit before a keyboard.
A writer has to draw a picture (or offer enough sensory imput) for the reader to place himself, through imagination, “in the room.” In this respect, the experience of living in Japan has pushed my writing forward by leaps and bounds. I’m not only much more in touch with what’s going on with my other senses, but have come to fully recognize the necessity of using them to write for I’ve needed them tremendously just to enjoy the things I took for granted back in the states.
When we communicate, our bodies play a major role in this dialogue. And depending on how finely tuned your ability to comprehend what the body is saying, you really don’t need verbal language much at all. Studies have shown that non-verbal communication accounts for the vast majority of information being shared in a conversation. In some cases as much of 80%! In fact, in many cases, words are telling a very different story than the body, and unless the person you’re communicating with is ultra aware of this fact, like a professional actor or liar, the body is generally and unconsciously in some cases speaking truth even when the lips are lying.
So, for all intents and purposes, I have spent the past nine years in an almost constant dialogue with the natives here. That doesn’t make me special. Every foreigner here is doing the same, only on varying levels of awareness of the conversation. To some, clearly, it’s merely background noise; thousands of voices clamoring for attention so perhaps they feel it is in their best interest to ignore them, or to respond bodily with a resounding and condescendingly petulant “you piss poor peasants are beneath my scorn. ” Or perhaps they’ve managed to shut down their senses, to an extent, and focus solely on their inner monologue.
I really don’t know what’s going on in people’s minds, Japanese nor foreigners, aside from that which they share with me through these non-verbal cues we as humans constantly utilize.
There are essentially six human emotions that can be universally recognized across all cultures through nonverbal communication. They are: Joy, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. These emotions are most easily identified via the face but some people (highly sensitive or knowledgable folk) can recognize these emotions with a high degree of accuracy simply when witnessing the universal aspects of posture associated with each emotion.
I think I need to make a clear distinction between these and culturally derived body language like winks, the thumbs-up, beckoning someone with the index finger and indicating fuck you with the middle, etc. These are NOT universal.
Smiling and muscle relaxation when happy, trembling and fleeing when scared, crying when sad, narrowing of the eyes when angry, and the disgust on the faces of people when smelling natto (rotten soy beans) for the first time or hearing someone fart on the train, etc, are universal human responses. Without a word, everyone knows how you feel!
I realized that since coming to Japan I’ve become far more in touch with such gestures than I ever was back home. I pick up on unintentional human gestures such as an eye rub, a nose itch, a head scratch, an ear scratch, crossing arms, and turning backs and have found these convey “useful” information. I’ve mentioned this in a couple of posts in the past. I called it the “The Japanese Tick” and I regret the day I came to realize its existence for now I can’t help but notice it all day every day. The gestures are as ubiquitous (and, in their most subtle manifestations, ultimately harmless) as bowing, but nevertheless they punctuate this non-verbal conversation as much as a pause, a tooth suck or a cuss would a verbal one.
Poker players call it a tell.
Vincent Cocotti called it the pantomime
So, while in the vast majority of my interactions with Japanese people no words are exchanged, I do wind up chatting it up with complete strangers on a daily basis. Not too long ago, a typical non-verbal conversation might go a little something like this:
Japanese Man #1: (glancing up from his cellphone, notices me boarding the train and heading in his general direction): Oh shit! What the fuck did I do to deserve this? Please don’t come this way! Oh, fuck me, fuck me…
Me: I’m not going to harm you, you fucking prick! I’m just going to work, to teach your fucking kids how to not be like you!
Japanese Man #1: Damn, what should I do? Should I run? Nah…where the fuck could I go? That’ll just make a scene. But, if I stay here he might…I dunno…do something! Shit. fuck, ok relax… he wouldn’t try anything on a crowded train…there are hundreds of witnesses. and he couldn’t escape. But, what if he’s crazy? He certainly doesn’t think like we do so he might as well be crazy.
Me: Are you deaf? I said I mean you no fucking harm, and I mean it. What do I have to do to prove it? Smile? Ok, look! Here’s a fucking smile for you! You feel better now? See! Big shit-eating grin just for you!
Japanese Man #1: Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What the fuck is he doing now? My god, he’s baring his teeth at me…
Me: Geezus, gimme a break, man.
Japanese Man #1: Maybe it’s cuz I’m in his line of sight? Or because I made eye contact. Wait a minute. Wait a goddamn minute! I am not a pussy. You might be a big tough black guy but I refuse to be afraid of you! See my solid chest? See my broad shoulders? I was captain of the hockey team, fr’chrissakes. Fuck you for making me feel this cowardly first thing in the morning. This conversation is over! And I dare you to try something. Think I’m scared just because you’re 10 feet tall with bulging muscles, and black? I ain’t scared of you. See, I’ll even turn my back on you to prove it!
Me: (glancing around for witnesses to this outburst) What a fucking asshole! You see what I gotta put up with? Now I’d be wronged if I put his ass through that door window, wouldn’t I?
Japanese man #2: Oh fuck, man! Don’t look at me! I’m just standing here minding my business and I mean you no harm. I can see you have enough troubles…with that condition of yours. My god…sorry for staring but what is that shit all over your skin, anyway?
Me: It’s called pigment…the main ingredient is melanin.
Japanese man #2: I see, well, don’t mind me. I’m just gonna move as far away from you as possible. No offense but I sure don’t want any of that pigshit, or whatever you call it, on me! Bad enough I got this big ass black mole growing out of my lip! Last thing I need is whatever you got.
Me: Well, fuck you, too! Bye!
Japanese Woman #1: Is he looking at me?
Me: It’s not what you think…I swear. I don’t find you attractive at all. I’m just wondering if you know how conspicuous it is that every time I glance away the gap between us grows. I just want you to know that I know. And it is so uncool.But, see, I can take it.
Japanese Woman #1: Well, if you were me…oh never mind. You wouldn’t understand…you’re a foreigner.
Me: What bullshit! I understand you loud and clear. You’re saying you’re a member of a race of ignorant insensitive assholes, and in most cases, and clearly in your case, to expect more is to expect too much. Am I right?
Japanese Woman #1: Half right…but close enough, I suppose, for a foreigner. You might try smiling, though. That angry puss you got on now sure as hell isn’t gonna win you any sympathy…
Me: Sympathy? You think I’m seeking your pity? And how would that benefit me exactly? Would you stand comfortably beside me if you pitied me? You know what? Don’t even answer that…Happy trails, bitch.
Japanese Man #3: What stop is this? Aren’t we to Yokohama station, yet?? I can’t take being near you anymore. Every second that passes I feel more and more that I’m taking my life in my own hands. I tried to just act like you’re a regular person, but it’s just impossible to relax so close to you. I’m getting off next stop and moving to another car.
Me: I wish you would, cuz your constant fidgeting and squirming is annoying the shit outta me.
Japanese Man #4: You look so cool…fierce, like those guys in the movies. I wonder why you guys always look so angry, though.
Me: Open your eyes and look around, Sherlock! Can’t you see what your comrades are doing? Are you fucking blind?
Japanese Man #4: Oh shit! What the hell did I say wrong??My bad, brother! Ooh, look, an advertisement for an English school! Wow!
Japanese woman #2: There’s breathing room near you, I know, but my god you’re so fearsome…where is my purse? Oh here it is! I best secure it.
Me: Bitch, if I wanted your purse, do you really think switching arms would deter me? Did you even bother to think how that might make me feel, in the event I’m not a thief, your insinuating I’m one?
Japanese Woman #2: Oh My God! Please don’t kill me!!
And the hits keep coming…some variation on this dialogue occurs on a regular basis, with varying degrees of severity. The above is about average.
So, you’re probably wondering why the hell would I advise you to follow Tip #9: Listen with your Eyes and Trust your Gut if a good deal of what you’re going to be hearing with those eyes and perceiving with that gut will be in direct conflict with the experience the rest of your body will be having in Japan.
For, hell, your ears will be enthralled with this lovely intricate language, and will be sucking on all kinds of ear candy, courtesies, flattery, and syrupy sweet adulation on a regular basis. So, what happens is your ears conspire with your desire to continue experiencing the Japan of your dreams and fantasies (and to not be a victim, and to have fun) and convince your brain that your eyes and gut have it all wrong. The above type conversations do not take place. Japanese people do not say such things to me. It was all a paranoid fabrication, an hallucination (which are more common than people realize). For one, you’ll tell yourself, conversations, at a minimum, require sounds and words. Also, you’ll admonish yourself that for any conversations of significance to take place between yourself and Japanese people, nihongo as well as a thorough understanding of Japanese customs and culture is a necessity…or you’re asking for trouble.
You tell yourself it’s these damn eyes that are misunderstanding the universal language of the body. It’s this unfaithful, unreliable gut of mine that is misinterpreting the non-verbal communication it was designed to alert me to; those same alerts I (prior to coming to Japan, presumably) would have taken heed of. It is they, these wayward members of my biology,who are inexplicably behind this conspiracy to deceive and mislead me from this very special feeling living in Japan has given me.
Yeah…if you say so.
I for one think it is everyone’s best interest to keep the lying, particularly to oneself, to a minimum. mentally, emotionally and spiritually this is advice that behooves us all. Myself included.
You see, while I’m sitting here advising others not to use self-deception and cognitive dissonance to manage their lives here, I too have to be very careful that I am not guilty of the same. No one is infallible.
But, I assure you, if you close that Kanji studying app for a moment, and put your smart phone away. Hell, go ahead and shut off your ears for a spell, too. And, look around. Don’t just observe people like some kind of social scientist, though. Don’t scrutinize with notions of “they are different, they are Japanese” in your mind. Throw that shit out! They are NOT different. They are people. They are humans. And don’t just sit there and stare, either. LISTEN with your eyes. And if the opportunity presents itself, or asserts itself, don’t ignore, engage! Internalize what’s being said to you. Having trouble interpreting what’s being said? Don’t you dare open that Japanese to English dictionary app! It can’t help you. Fuck that Japanese Culture for Dummies app. It’s useless for the purpose of this interaction. Not sure what to say…go ahead and ask your gut. Trust it to respond on your behalf, to say what you believe needs to be said.
Sometimes my gut tells me to retaliate, other times it tells me to appease… I might not end up in the conversation I’d been studying for or was planning to have with the people here, but it has been a conversation as needful as any I’ve had in nihongo. I never know what my gut’s going to advise, for each situation is different. But I’ve come to trust it. It’s not flawless, of course, but that little voice inside me has proven itself time and time again to be the best part of me.
My Gut’s name is
Stay tuned for the conclusion, Part 10 coming soon.