Common Sense vs Stupidity

Common Sense vs Stupidity

“What does ‘man-shou’ mean?”

If you were Japanese, this is a very embarrassing question to ask. The word “man-shou” means “hospital beds are all occupied” and a word a normal Japanese should know. Here’s how my friend reacted when I visited her at the hospital:
“You don’t know the word ‘man-shou’? Well, I guess you aren’t Japanese after all…”
Though I hate people saying this to me, this happens to me a lot. Maybe because I’ve been raised in the US till the age of 12 (missing the entire Japanese elementary education), but I ask questions without thinking too much. This is a big taboo in Japan. There are things that you must know whether it’s the meaning of a word or simply culture/manner related issue, which I call Japanese “common sense.”
Of course, as a non-Japanese, you can get away with it. But if you were a Japanese, not knowing what you should know is a big embarrassment. Coming back to Japan at the age of 12, I really hated being called a foreigner. I quickly found the easiest way to overcome this is by stop asking.
Most Japanese say they just know intuitively the line between what you should know and what you shouldn’t. I say intuitively because when asked in detail, the line is very fuzzy.
In a homogeneous society, this can be understood. We are all Japanese, go through the same education system, read the same newspapers, see the same TV programs, and so on. Shared values, shared knowledge leads to shared common sense. But what I find so puzzling is that no one knows the exact line between “common sense” and “stupidity.”
I have seen so many Japanese not knowing what they should have known and seemed extremely embarrassed of not knowing the answer. This makes me the villain since I was the one asking the question they couldn’t answer (especially in a public setting) and I must quickly back-off to avoid further damage.
So unless the question is safe enough away from the “common sense” radar, it’s so hard to ask questions especially in a public setting (more than two people are involved). Don’t ask! Just ask a very close relative or friend later on or look it up in the internet to play it safe. What I see is, because of this, most Japanese stop asking questions.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is bad. This perfectly works in a homogeneous culture and probably is the most effective way of communicating in Japanese. I personally like this, what we call, “ishin-denshin (sensing communication)” style, and think I pretty much mastered this after 25 years in Japan.
But it is this mindset that is getting in the way when most Japanese communicate with non-Japanese using English. Since we Japanese only know one communication style (sensing communication), we use the same style when using English. We draw an imaginary line of which English words/phrases that we must know and which not. And since the line is impossible to draw, we try to memorize many words/phrases as possible. We stick to the “asking” as an “embarrassing” mindset.
When I came back to Japan, I had no idea where Chiba prefecture was. So I asked “Where is Chiba?.” Fast forward 25 years later, and people still introduce me as the stupid guy who don’t know where Chiba is. It is this terrifying! Probably when I die, someone will still remember this and bring it up at the funeral as good old memories!
My hypothesis of “The reason why most Japanese have trouble communication using English as a communication tool, is that they unconsciously use English in a Japanese communication style” comes from these sour experiences.
English is now a global language used all over the world. People use/pronounce words differently by region which makes it impossible to communicate by passive listening. We, Japanese, also imagine there is a universal “common sense” out there based on the Japanese common standards, and often complain that most foreigners are too aggressive.
In the last blog, I wrote that most Japanese prioritize feelings over contents when communicating but I believe this “common sense” mindset is equally preventing many Japanese to use English as a communication tool.
This mindset is extremely hard to break. I often tell my students that you to change communication style, you must play a dual personality. I found out that I am unconsciously doing this. People find me more aggressive when speaking English. And most interestingly, many of my non-Japanese friends who speaks fluent Japanese become less aggressive without realizing it.

Posted by Masafumi Otsuka

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