Learning to Read the Air: Three Ways to Improve Communication in Cultures Where Silence Is Golden

by Paul Sadler

I want to share three things I have had to consider when communicating with my Japanese friends.  

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church member had seemingly made an incredibly unwise decision. No he hadn’t hurt anyone, and it was an area of personal freedom, but it appeared he had clearly put his own desires above his commitment to God, and it would no doubt have an adverse impact on his spiritual walk for years to come. 

I was convinced the person needed to be confronted. He needed to be shown how he had cut God out of the decision-making process and would reap consequences as a result. But as I brought my concerns to Japanese colleagues and mentors, they cautioned me to bite my tongue. His decision was no doubt a foolish one. But confrontation in this case, they all agreed, would be neither wise nor helpful. I faithfully submitted, but was left confused. What was I missing? Was their response merely born out of cowardice? Or had they seen something I didn’t? And was this just a mystery of culture, or would Jesus have responded in the same way?

I want to share three things I have had to consider when communicating with my Japanese friends.   

1. Assess Where You Stand in a Person’s Relational Boundaries

As I interviewed Japanese people about this situation, everyone agreed it would have been unwise to force a confrontation. In fact, in their responses, they all used the word “boundaries” at some point. “Most Japanese people are very sensitive about their personal boundaries,” one person explained. Japanese society can be very regimented and hierarchical by North American standards. Just about everyone has a boss or a teacher or a coach or an in-law who can exert fairly extreme levels of authority and control and expect silent submission in return. And while there are set relationships where this kind of authority is accepted, Japanese are often very sensitive to people crossing the boundaries of influence that they feel a certain relationship warrants.

What determines those boundaries? The people I interviewed cited factors such as the person’s spiritual maturity and the length as well as the depth of the relationship. When I explained that the person was a first-generation Christian, and shared how long we’d known each other and the level of interaction we’d had prior to this decision, they said I simply hadn’t yet earned the right to cross such a personal boundary. Without a relational foundation upon which to base my interaction, the person wouldn’t be able to really hear what I was saying. The offense against their personal boundaries would overwhelm any good I hoped to bring from the conversation.

2. Nurture Virtues of Harmony, Patience, and Restraint

One person shared that not confronting the person about his decision in this case was not only a necessary evil, as I was tending to perceive it, but a virtue. He explained, “When I chose to bear someone’s actions with patience and restraint, out of love for them and concern for our relationship, I feel that I’m choosing the unselfish path.” My need to get things out on the table would have been perceived in this case as selfish, impatient, and insensitive to this person and the relationship we had. I was reminded of Proverbs 17:28: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”

While I understood what I was learning about boundaries, I still didn’t understand why silence and indirect communication were so highly valued in Japanese interaction. One of the biggest insults you can pay a person in Japan is that he or she can’t “read the air”—he or she isn’t able to flow with the harmony of the group. The people I interviewed explained that reading the air was a basic sensitivity to the consensus and direction of the group. Someone who doesn’t get it or who throws out seemingly random opinions kills the mood and threatens the honor of the other stakeholders. 

But there’s a balance. Always agreeing with the group is the safe but muted course. And being too quick to give your opinion is a quick path to being expelled from the group. But, as one person shared, “Someone who is able to discern and affirm the consensus of the group, and at the right time offer opinions and ideas that will advance the flow and direction of the group, is perceived as leader.” 

Nine parts harmony and one part personality may be the Japanese formula for influence. But nine parts personality and one part harmony is a sure recipe for disaster. As one Japanese person with extensive international experience shared, “My daughter told me one day, ‘When you come to pick me up, just try to act like a regular Japanese person, okay?’ And by that she meant, keep quiet about your opinions and just do whatever you’re told.”

I recently had dinner with a Japanese Noh actor. Noh is a traditional Japanese theater form involving masks. I was intrigued by the idea of trying to act while having your face covered in a mask and so I asked him, “What’s the most important characteristic in being a Noh actor?” He replied, 

“Completely restraining any individuality and intricately copying your mentor. I started as a young boy, training under my father. And I’ll continue to copy and master the intricacies of his style until he dies. At that time, when I’m 60 or 70, I’ll be expected to take all that I’ve learned and only then combine it with my own innovations and personality.”

Whatever can be said for this career path, the patience and restraint is astounding. For me to ignore the priority of this Japanese virtue of patience in my speech or relationships with people will be to present a Jesus who is selfish, impatient, and rude.

3. Understand Pastoral Authority in Cultural Context

I want to learn to read the air more effectively. I want to consider the harmony of the group and affirm and demonstrate patience where I need to. But isn’t there a time and a place to deal with the tough issues? Aren’t there scenarios where Japanese will confront an issue? I asked one person, 

If a high school baseball coach only ever patted all the players on the back and never addressed their absence from practice, the problems in their swing, and their lack of effort in running drills, would people look to him as an example of patience and virtue?

Of course the answer was no. Such a coach was not fit to lead. But what gave him the authority on the baseball team? And what other rules dictated levels of authority in society? And what model determined the perception of authority in the church?

What I learned is that the rules of Japanese society have largely been set in place by hundreds of years of tradition. Sports of all kinds are modeled at least in part on the dynamic that existed among samurai masters and their disciples in ancient Japan. The top-down control experienced in Japanese companies, too, has its roots in feudal times. Families traditionally have been ruled by a dominant father. And the rules of general society are dictated by the maintenance of harmony and the rule of the group. But these systems are in flux. The influence of American education theory has restricted the authority of teachers from what it was, and cases of physical punishment exerted by coaches on players are now reported and sanctioned. Globalization is slowly creating more flat corporate cultures and as more women are working outside the home and asserting their influence, egalitarian family models are gaining in popularity.

Conclusion

In the midst of these many societal structures and changing dynamics, the Church’s authority is unclear. Older Christians respect strong pastoral leadership and authority rooted in a position. Younger Christians expect more sensitive family-style leadership rooted in relationship. And non-Christians often approach the Church very cautiously, fearing the control and abuse that has been reported all too often since the 1995 sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subways by the Supreme Truth cult. 

While the Church’s future role in Japanese society is unclear, it would seem unwise to assume pastoral authority rooted in a title when dealing with Japanese individuals. Rather, the trend is toward more relationally-based leadership, rooted in shared history, spiritual input, and depth of fellowship. As a missionary, I need to learn to read the air, understand the context, discern the boundary lines that have been established in each of my relationships, and above all, demonstrate patience and perseverance as I try to shepherd people to the Savior. As one Japanese pastor once said to me, “The growth and development of the church is borne on the patience and perseverance of the pastor.”

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Paul Sadler served with Fellowship International for the last fifteen years as a church planter in Japan, and has just recently returned to Canada, where he leads a diverse, multi-cultural congregation in the Toronto area. He can be reached at paulsadlermobile@gmail.com. 

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 4 pp. 388-292. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

Questions for Reflection

1. How would you evaluate the depth of relational trust in your key ministry relationships? How is this trust nurtured in your setting?

2. When is silence seen as a virtue in your people group? What dictates when people decide to address an issue rather than avoid it? Are there other alternatives that are more culturally acceptable than confrontation or avoidance?

3. How is pastoral authority understood in your culture? Are there parallels to other roles in your society that might give you insight into the perceived boundaries?

 


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