American and Japanese ways of speaking are so different that they often cause culture shock to both Americans and Japanese who visit each other's country. Most Japanese who come to the United States are at first shocked and have a problem with the American direct way of speaking.
Culture shock occurs because most Japanese cannot easily escape from the formula "politeness= indirectness." Compared to the American way of speaking, Japanese speak much more indirectly. Directness is considered a form of impoliteness in Japan. Therefore, when we want to be polite, we speak and act very indirectly. For example, we seldom say, "I'll go to a bathroom," except when we are with close friends. Usually, we say, "I'll go wash my hands." Especially when we are at the table or with an important person, we say only, "Excuse me. I'll be back in a minute" because we do not want to remind other people of the bathroom, which is considered a dirty place, even though it is actually clean. Also, other Japanese can infer that we are going to a bathroom from this phrase. But Americans cannot. They ask where we are going since they have no idea what we are going to do: make a phone call? buy something? Yet, in this case, these questions make Japanese frustrated, wondering why these Americans do not understand our polite expression.
Basically, expressing our desire directly is not considered polite, and culture shock happens to Japanese when Americans expect us to express our feelings honestly. Concerning appetite, when we are guests, we are unlikely to say, "I'm hungry." We put up with hunger until we are asked, "Aren't you hungry?" Even when we answer the question, we want to stay polite, so we never say, "Yes. Very much." Instead, even if we are starving, we will say, "Uh..., yes, a little." An American host or hostess may notice that we are reserved and ask us to feel at home, but their kindness causes difficulty, especially to middle-aged or older Japanese because they cannot easily find another way to express their respect for the Americans.
Japanese are shocked by American unreserved behavior because the American way of speech is very direct. They do not hesitate to express what they want since directness is honesty for them. They will say, "I'm hungry. Why don't we go and eat something?" Japanese are surprised to see Americans in the presence of guests say, "I'm hungry" or "Can I have another glass of juice?" On the other hand, we can easily understand what they want.
At the same time, Japanese are shocked because their way of being polite no longer holds good in the United States. If we answer, "Uh..., yes. I'm hungry but only a little," our host or hostess may postpone the meal. Later, Americans around me might notice my stomach rumbling and wonder why I did not tell the truth.
Similarly, Japanese may be surprised to hear Americans say "No" often because Japanese tend not to say "No." We usually express our reluctance to accept an offer by subtle facial and verbal expressions because we want to avoid making people feel bad by refusing directly. For instance, a Japanese student studying might say, "Um..., yes," when asked by an American roommate if he may turn on the TV. Whereas the Japanese student thinks his expression, "Um," fairly expresses his intention of refusing, but his roommate turns it on. As a result, he has to study with the noise of the TV. To make matters worse, he tells his neighbors that he had trouble doing his assignments because his roommate was watching TV beside him. The American roommate may be informed of this story by one of the neighbors. Then he may well get angry since he asked and received permission to watch TV. Consequently, Americans will think that Japanese are difficult to understand and the way we speak is confusing. Thus, our intention to be polite and be accepted as nice people works in the opposite direction. The fact that we are not thought of as nice people depresses us so much. This depression may be one of the major culture shocks to Japanese who come to the States.
The difference between American and Japanese ways of speaking can cause us some bad experiences at first; however, once we get accustomed to the direct speech of Americans, it is more convenient than the Japanese way. First, we can say what we want. Second, we do not have to hesitate to tell the truth in order to be polite. Finally, it frees us from unnecessary misunderstandings. The third point makes us happy because it makes us feel we have adjusted ourselves to American society at last. Compared to Americans trying to learn the Japanese way of speech, we are supposed to have much less difficulty learning the American way. At first, it might seem to be difficult, but in a few months, we will find ourselves comfortable in the direct speech of the Americans and may be in trouble when speaking with newcomers from Japan.
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