This post is also available in: Japanese
I was looking at my diaries from when I was 11 years’ old and living in Japan, and was amused to see that I had written in them that my burning ambition was to be a politician. Quite a few of the people I knew at university have become politicians, so I suppose on reflection this was not an impossible dream for me.
I then wondered why I did not try to realise this ambition. I think it is because I really don’t like confrontation and I take it too personally. This might be rooted in my childhood in Japan – Japanese schools do not offer as many opportunities to debate as they do in the UK. But I also spent my teenage years in British schools, where, like many schools in the UK and Europe, there were plenty of opportunities to become good at arguing, such as school debating societies and public speaking competitions.
By the time I reached university, I preferred to watch rather than participate in debates. I still enjoyed writing logical, reasoned essays, which are the core of a liberal arts education in Europe, but I did not want to become a journalist either.
Journalism and politics in the UK are very “adversarial” – always insisting that there are two opposed sides to every story and trying to set up a confrontation or show who is to blame. Journalists claim this is a necessary approach, to get to the truth.
However, a common way that politicians and journalists try to dominate the other is by using what are known as “ad hominem” attacks – a Latin phrase which is used in English, meaning “to the man”. In other words, they try to undermine the validity of the other person’s argument by attacking the personal characteristics of the opponent.
This is not considered a good debating technique, as it is not actually addressing the facts or logic behind the viewpoint or idea being expressed. People try to avoid this kind of technique in the workplace, as it would be seen as discriminatory. Plenty of arguments do take place however, about the definitions, logic, theories, profitability and justifications behind taking various business decisions.
This does not seem to work well with traditional Japanese approach, which is more Confucian and “ascriptive”. It’s not seen as unfair to assume that someone is more likely to be right because they have a higher status. To the European question of “why?” a Japanese person senses a personal attack and a questioning of authority.
Surprisingly, the nation which is most famous for philosophical rhetoric – France – has an education system which, like Japan, discourages questioning of teachers and therefore of superiors in the workplace. But then France is also famous for its strikes and bloody revolutions. Perhaps this is why in many Northern European workplaces, debate is considered to be “healthy”. Japanese managers in Europe need to be prepared to argue their case logically to ensure good employee relations.
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