Pernille Rudlin was interviewed by Tadaharu Iizuka, Managing Director of Centre People, regarding the Japanese use of ‘ishindenshin’ or telepathy in order to communicate. It appeared in the Japanese language weekly Journey magazine, May 5th 2005.
Iizuka: Although Japanese attitudes towards communication and Japanese culture itself are changing, we still have a long history of unconsciously using ‘ishin denshin’ (telepathy or tacit understanding). We think that the other person has already understood what we are trying to say, so we don’t say much, but in the UK if we expect this to work…
Rudlin: …it can lead to misunderstandings or British people saying to themselves “you can never tell what Japanese people are thinking”. Research has shown that the degree of directness of expression varies between cultures. Americans are very forthright, the French quite forthright, the British in the middle somewhere, South East Asians are rather more indirect and the Japanese are very indirect. With Americans, what they say is all that they want to say, nothing more, nothing less. Which is why they find it hard to understand what Japanese people are trying to say.
Iizuka: The British are in the middle, as you say, and having talked to British people who have experience of living in Japan and they did indeed say that in this respect British are more like the Japanese than they are like Americans. Certainly compared to Americans British don’t say things as directly sometimes but compared to the Japanese, British people seem to make a distinction between when to be direct and when to hold back?
Rudlin: Yes. We definitely like to hint at things without having to say them explicitly. So I don’t think ‘ishin denshin’ is peculiar to the Japanese. I will give an example of something that happened when I was working in Japanese company. A Japanese colleague asked me to help him with a letter from a British company. He couldn’t understand the meaning of it, even though he was from a top university and spoke good English. I understood the meaning of the letter the moment I read it. The letter writer was forcefully expressing his dissatisfaction with services received, whilst keeping his anger reined in. The kind of expressions he used were “merely” and “if you would be so kind as to…” and “with all due respect”. It was very clearly as would say in Japanese ‘ingin burei’ or ‘hypocritical courtesy’, but at the same time you could not take offence at the expressions used. It was necessary to ‘read between the lines’.
Iizuka: As it happens the other day I received an e-mail in Japanese that said ‘I would like you to read between the lines to understand what I am trying to say…” so it does seem from what you say that there areas in which Japanese and British communication styles are similar. However I have heard that this expression in Japanese ‘read between the lines’ was actually originally borrowed from the West. Perhaps because in the past ‘reading between the lines’ was such a matter of course in Japan that it was not necessary to give it a label.
Rudlin: That’s a very interesting point. Highly educated British people in particular like to use euphemisms, for example if you see the classic British TV comedy series ‘Yes Minister’, you will see this. They like using a great variety of words to create subtle expressions.
However if as a Japanese person living in Europe you believe, having heard British use euphemisms, that you can use Japanese style ‘ishin denshin’ as the lynchpin of your communication with British people, you will find that things do not work out as well as you hoped.
Iizuka: Having worked in the UK for a long time I can think of many slip-ups caused by my relying on ‘ishin denshin’. I can see that it is born from my attitude that ‘we are all the same human beings’ so we can understand each other, I do not have to say anything as it is very obvious and you will surely understand it by yourself.
Rudlin: A big difference between Japanese and British communication style is that Japanese often do not use clear expressions when it is in fact necessary to do so. This can cause things to go awry, or misunderstandings or even mistrust. So it is vital sometimes to be very explicit. It is possible, given the amount of influence the USA has had on British society and culture, that the British are beginning to expect a more direct way of expression.
Iizuka: We are taught at school in Japan to express ourselves clearly but at the same time ‘ishin denshin’ culture is programmed into our way of thinking in other parts of our lives. So when we live in Europe we consciously have to adopt a different approach.
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