Personal stories and opinions
As we begin our journey through many of the aspects of everyday life , the authors would like to remind you that the Ibunka Survey was conducted with the goal of gathering a range of personal stories and opinions. It was not designed to capture any definitive, wide-ranging “truths” about culture and cultural difference. The responses gathered in this textbook and the website were chosen to help illustrate some of the interesting differences and similarities that we think students and teachers would like to explore.
However, in these Cultural Commentary pages, we would like to share with you a number of general ideas that have found some traction in intercultural literature, as well as observations from our own findings and experience. They may be useful for teachers, to see where we are coming from, and to help guide students toward extensions and further studies. Please take them with a grain of salt. We offer them in the spirit of cultural analysis, as introduced by Raymonde Carroll in her excellent book Cultural Misunderstandings : the French-American experience. She posits that fostering intercultural awareness means helping students to conceive of the existence of cultural systems different from one’s own. Behaviors that might seem illogical, dishonest or even crazy when seen from the prism of one’s own cultural logic can actually make sense once we understand that they are part of cultural systems that have their own logic. This is one of the goals of the Ibunka Survey and also of this textbook, a goal that we think is simultaneously modest and ambitious.
Introducing oneself: blend in or stand out?
The topic of Unit 1 is self-introduction, and by extension, the ways in which we present ourselves to others. From the responses to the Ibunka Survey, and personal experience, we can posit that when introducing oneself to a group, there are two distinct common patterns:
- the person introducing themself focuses on what they have in common with others (this is largely the norm in Japan, for several reasons)
- the person introducing themself focuses on what is unique about them, and tries to make themself “memorable” to others (this is the norm in many “Western” cultures)
Both of these behaviors can be rather shocking to people from “the other side.” People from a culture in which uniqueness is valued, when hearing someone from a commonality-first culture might wonder, “Why don’t they want to show themselves? Are they hiding something?” Conversely, people from the other point of view might think, “Why don’t they acknowledge the group, why are they so totally obsessed with themselves?”
An example of this can be seen in One Step Further response number 12 (p.76), in which a Japanese respondent admits that self-introductions in the US sounded to him like people “constantly bragging.”
“I like music”
It has been noted that people from a Japanese cultural background tend to describe themselves in very general terms, using phrases that apply to almost everyone. “I like to sleep”, “I like shopping”, or “I like music” are common descriptions of one’s hobbies. Generally speaking, “Westerners” tend to use more specific descriptions. such as “I like jazz”, or “I’m really into science-fiction movies.” This points to a cultural pattern, in which we can see a general emphasis on roles in Japanese culture, and an emphasis on identity in most Western cultures (Azra, 2011). One’s roles vary with the situation, and adapting to one’s role in a given situation is easier when commonality is sought. Conversely, while one’s identity is supposed to be constant, and expressing it clearly without too much regard for the context can be seen as a sign of truthfulness/openness.
Formal or less formal, self-assured or self-deprecating
Another aspect of self-introductions is the level of formality. In one of the responses to the Ibunka Survey, an American respondent comments that, “Here in Japan, I’ve always found it remarkable how formal the greetings seem.”(One Step Further, response no.1) Of course, American culture is known to be quite casual as a whole in this regard. Europeans for example, while often not being as formal as Japanese people, usually believe that a certain decorum is appropriate and desirable in most social situations. In Japan, there is a “manual” to be adhered to; this is simultaneously reassuring (“do this and you have done what you are supposed to”) and constricting (“even if you want to say something else, it’s not on the menu.”)
As with several other topics in this textbook, there are considerable differences among Western countries, even if it is still possible to talk about them as a general cultural group without being far off the mark. And when describing cultural differences, it is not a question of black or white absolutes, but of degree. This is a key point that we want students to grasp, and be able to express, as they work their way through the book.
For example, Geert Hofstede, the famous Ducth interculturalist, writes that Americans tend to present themselves in professional settings as very self-assured (“I am very confident I can perform at a high level”) whereas Europeans are used to being more low-key. In the Ibunka Survey, British respondent Catriona describes herself as adhering to the British habit of self-deprecation (p.12). But again, the difference depends largely on the point of comparison. New Zealander Jane talks about her students’ tendency to describe themselves as incompetent, and sometimes even to make mistakes on purpose so as not to stand out. This is something that probably surprises all “Western” teachers in Japan.
In this unit, Comprehension 3 is focused on a connected topic: compliments. Belgian respondent Marc notes that Japanese people tend to compliment others frequently, in order to “put oil on the wheels” of communication. (p.13) People from these cultures systematically look for something on which to compliment the other person on. This is sometimes a trivial thing, such as “Your Japanese is really good,” after a foreigner has just said “Hello” in Japanese, or “You use chopsticks so well.” These comments also commonly refer to physical attributes. It is surprising and even shocking to many Westerners when they are praised for physical attributes that are considered desirable in Japanese culture, such as having long legs, a small head or face, having lost weight or being handsome or pretty.
The flipside of this propensity is that Japanese people do not speak highly of their own family members, even when there would be a reason to. The Canadian respondent in the One Step Further section (no.8, p.76) even says that she witnessed Japanese parents actively denigrating their daughter (“She looks like an old shoe”) despite the fact that their daughter “was actually very pretty.”
For Westerners in general, it seems that gushing compliments are less frequent. They should ideally be “truthful”, i.e., they should reflect what the person who utters them actually thinks, otherwise they might be perceived as flattery.
High- and low- context cultures
Finally, the topic of self-introductions can be connected with the framework of high and low context cultures. The renowned ethnologist Edward T. Hall characterizes American culture as a “low context culture”. This means that people rely comparatively less on the context to understand the meaning of situations and words. They prefer and need more explicitness. By contrast, Japanese culture is a comparatively high context culture: the social context provides many clues to communication, and less needs to be explicitly said. Many European cultures are said to fall somewhere between these two extremes.
References and further reading
- Carroll, R. (1988), Cultural Misunderstandings : the French-American experience, Chicago : University of Chicago Press
- Azra, J.L. (2011), Les Japonais sont-ils différents ? : 62 clefs pour comprendre le Japon ordinaire. Paris: Connaissances et Savoirs (in French)
- Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Hall, E.T. (1076), Beyond Culture, Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press
- Polite But Not Discreet: Why Is Japan So Open About Body-Talk?