Why Japanese don’t clarify even though they’re confused

Why Japanese don’t clarify even though they’re confused

I often get surprised reactions when I tell my non-Japanese friends that we, Japanese, do not stop you for clarification even if we get confused.
For those who are “confused” by this fact, I’ll try to do the best I can to explain. First, let me give an example:
I recently was talking to a friend who works one floor below my office. He looked very upset, certainly annoyed about something. So I asked him what happened. This is how the conversation rolled out (in Japanese, of course):

Him: “I cannot forgive ‘Bank A’!”
Me: “What happened?”
Him: “Well, my friend who runs ‘X corporation’ uses ‘Bank B’. And…
Me: “Wait. I thought you were upset about ‘Bank A’, why are you talking about ‘Bank B’?”
My friend let out a deep “Aghhhhhhh” sigh, clearly stating that he was annoyed, and told me:
“Can you just be quiet and listen to me?”
And kept talking… He then brought up ‘Corporate B’ which confused me even more, but after 5 minutes of my undivided silent attention, everything came together at the end and I fully understood why ‘Bank A’ was as guilty as charged.
In Japan, when someone is explaining something, the person is expected to flawlessly give explanation without interruption. So if you stop him/her, you are sending an implied message that the person is inadequately explaining and has done a poor job preparing. This particularly applies to conversation with seniors; interrupting is regarded as a big no-no, which would demonstrate particularly strong disrespect.
But how can you communicate if you can’t ask for clarification when you’re lost?
Well, in a bid to “clarify,” I introduce here something I call a “movie approach.” A good movie starts out by inviting you into a mystery. First, setting the stage, making you feel a bit confused but engaged, and then slowly the solution unfolds. But you’ll never know the resolution until the end. In other words, because of this disrespect implied in interruption, we built a unique communication system that doesn’t require much clarification. It does, however, require patience and paying careful attention.
In Japanese communication, conclusions will most likely come at the end, not the beginning. So we don’t mind being confused in the middle and can patiently listen because we believe that everything will make sense at the end.
The problem is that we unconsciously apply this same mind-set when talking to a non-Japanese in English. This creates huge miscommunication, as Japanese consider “interrupting” rude, the global community considers “not understanding” rude. In Japanese communication, everything will come together at the end, in a global setting when you’re lost at one point, you’ll be lost till the end.
That’s why I tell my Japanese students that they need to change their communication style when speaking English since the moment they feel lost, they’re really “lost,” so they have to stop and clarify at that very moment.
However, if you are a non-Japanese, it can be extremely helpful to remember this when going into a meeting with a Japanese businessperson. One suggestion I often make to my non-Japanese friends/clients is to engage him/her more often by asking:
- Is this making sense?
- Am I confusing you?
This is not rude because you are implying that your explanation is confusing, not his/her comprehension skills.
Any other suggestions to close this communication gap? I would love to know what you’re doing.

Posted by Masafumi Otsuka




    Jan 16

    Julie DeFalco Rowe

    Fascinating article. This advice is widely applicable. I once took a communications class that covered this, in the context of speaking to executives. We were advised to put our conclusions first and then explain how we got there (inductive reasoning), rather than the other way around (deductive).

      Jan 17

      Masafumi Otsuka

      Hi Julie,
      Great to hear from you! I know. Thank you for your compliment and comment.

      Yes. In global situations where people’s backgrounds are totally different, if you don’t say your conclusions first, people will get confused not knowing where the story is going. I think this movie approach (conclusions last) only applies to high context cultures where people go through the same education, read the same news, think in the same way. Even if it’s a bad movie where most people don’t get it, you can always look it up or ask someone. Hard to explain but we do without knowing when communicating in Japanese…


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