Daigaku Z: Mutually Assured Discussion

Daigaku Z is a weekly column about what it’s really like to study the Japanese language and culture at a major university. Z is enrolled as a student at the University of Pittsburgh after an over ten-year career in the information technology industry, and is pursuing a second degree with the aims of being a translator. This is the story of that degree.

I’m finding myself enthralled by the Pragmatics of Japanese class I’m taking this semester. It’s certainly one of the hardest courses I’ve ever taken, but that’s because it’s challenging me to think about things which would never cross my mind in a million zillion years. It’s asking me to examine something as subliminal and beneath notice as the way I speak and organize my thoughts. (Yes, there is actually an organization to my thoughts. Try not to be too surprised.)

The most recent article we discussed in the class as of this writing was about the differences between how Japanese group discussions are held and how American group discussions are. The short version of the article is that, while Americans launch straight into topics and only give as much detail as is asked for, Japanese people preface their conclusions with anecdotes to back up their assertions. The prevailing theory on this is that Japanese society highly values harmony, correctness, and prevention of embarrassment, which means that even an innocent mistake can be costly to one’s reputation. On the flip side, Americans are so free with their words that it’s easy to overlook the occasional slip of the tongue.

Case in point: yesterday in recitation class I said “suika” instead of “suiyoobi“, which means that yesterday was Watermelon, and today (as you read this) is Sunday. I was able to get over this mix-up with a slight blush, but the sideways glance I got from Ootani-sensei was unmistakable and unforgettable. While I, and most of the rest of the class, will probably forget about this in the long run, it’s something that sticks in the mind of native speakers.

More to the article’s data, however, was the way in which discussions were organized and sequenced. The Japanese speakers went through what most Americans would consider to be too much preamble, sorting out how the discussion would be framed and the order in which people would speak. The Americans, on the other hand, had “Who goes first? …okay, I will” as the full extent of their preparatory discussion. The American view of the Japanese discussion felt it was stilted and overly formal for what was just a short chat about why people decided to study abroad. It seemed, to most Americans, that they were approaching a casual topic with the same level of formality and structure (same or greater, actually) that Americans would use in Presidential debate!

On the flip side, though, there’s the Japanese view of American conversations as being terse, unorganized, pushy, and overly assertive. The article described American discussion tendencies as “reporting” or “summarizing”, and noted that we tend to provide our conclusions and assertions straight away and only delve into the supporting arguments if prompted or challenged. Left to our own devices, our thoughts can appear random, disconnected, and chaotic to someone who might not be following our train of thought exactly. This paragraph is actually a fairly good example of that particular style; it’s condensing a ten-page scholarly report into three or four sentences.

For being a language so heavily dependent on context, where “ii desu yo” can mean anything from “yeah, it’s great” to “no thank you”, the thought of American English as being “terse” and “unorganized” can seem a little bit projective, or less charitably, hypocritical. However, the Japanese paradigm of conversation and discussion lends itself towards providing that context. In a situation where understanding is critical, the Japanese are not frugal with their words; they offer lengthy establishing statements to set up the context necessary for their final point to be as clear as possible. Moreover, very seldom will a Japanese speaker directly assert anything; more than likely they will suggest options to who they perceive as their higher-up, in order to avoid making a statement that is or would later be contradicted or contraindicated. It is a sort of cultural avoidance of a clash of opinions that is coded into the language itself.

Now, all that said, there will be times when a Japanese person just says something flat-out. And there are going to be American discussions that are heavily regimented and directed. But by and large a reference for the “default” conversation style of a culture is a very necessary thing to know, if only to avoid trying to impose Robert’s Rules of Order when figuring out where to have dessert.