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« Fear, Action and Persistence. From great achievers in life. | Main | Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying. »

March 23, 2017



As an American coming to Japan, I had trouble (like many foreigners in Japan) understand the gestures, as well as the unspoken/unexpressed cultural clues there. I could watch a TV drama in which a young female protagonist would walk into a room and exchange glances with the male protagonist...silently for something like 5 or 10 seconds, then leave the room with a renewed anger or determination or something. I would watch in a stupor, exclaiming, "WTF just happened!". Hopefully, then I could ask a nearby Japanese friend for interpretation of the situation in the drama.

It was during my time as an international student that I finally grasped the importance of non-verbal communication, estimated by some researchers to represent up to 70% of the total communication "package". I also gradually came to understood the awful truth: English language and it's American cultural context, while a superb medium for explicit clarity (prized by lawyers and scientists, for example), are actually a very poor combination in the world of non-verbal communications. American English (and also perhaps many of the other English speaking regions) puts Americans at a significant disadvantage out in the world.

Americans are probably used to feeling a bit of a superiority complex with respect to the benefits of being a native speaker of the most widely accepted and published international language [sorry, Esperanto...]. But in fact, we are often inexperienced and largely untrained in the survival art of non-verbal communication. English is described as a "low context language", while Japanese is an example of a "high context language", which often consciously or unconsciously obfuscate pronouns, objects, or descriptive details because the listener is supposed to understand, or for various other reasons. I also experienced this in Finland, where a certain joke goes that you can tell an introverted Finn from an extroverted one because while the introvert looks at his shoes while speaking to you, the extrovert looks at YOUR shoes while talking to you. One of my Finnish colleagues also the following poster on his company cubicle. All of my American and British friends tended to agree!

In any case, there is an interesting guy, Richard Lewis, who worked with governments or diplomats in Japan, UK, Finland, and other nations, and who wrote articles and books about intercultural communications, especially focused on helping expats become acclimated to a new cultural environment. The famous one I read is called "When Cultures Collide". I take some of his concepts with a grain of salt, as they tend to oversimplify in the interest of maximizing familiarity, and probably also entertainment value. But his books, as well as his successful consultancy, demonstrate the importance of and the fascination we all have with the variety and the complexity of communication in this global society.

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