In recent days, I've been reading a book called "Cross-Cultural Conflict", by Duane Elmer. We're not experiencing cross-cultural conflict at the moment, but I thought that it would be a good idea to proactively read this type of book. As human beings, conflict will surely come, whether tomorrow or a year from now.
As I dig into the text, however, I've discovered that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there are examples and tips for dealing with cross-cultural conflict. However, in my opinion this book is more of a primer on indirect communication. Not of all of it is applicable to Japan, but two thirds of the world (including Japan) uses indirect methods as its primary form of communication; it's important to do all we can to understand this subject better.
Though the content of this book is largely new to me, I think that Peter is a different story. Being half-Japanese, raised by a mother who was heavily influenced by Japanese culture in her own upbringing, and being very culturally observant, I think that more has seeped into his instincts and thought patterns than either of us formerly realized.
Today I think I'll write about an underlying assumption that I didn't even realize I was making. The English language favours directness at its very core. We write in the active voice, with no ambiguity. In fact, the passive voice is seen by those well-versed in grammar as "bad". In Western society, we often assume that if someone is incorrect they will want to know this, so that they can improve themselves in the future. Directness is a natural part of life in the West, and anyone uncomfortable with it is often seen as overly sensitive and perhaps even neurotic.
However, people in the other 2/3 of the world often see the Western tendency toward directness as rude and childish. Instead, relational cohesion is valued above all else. A person is valued above whether or not he or she is "right". To my way of thinking, this is a very gentle and wonderful way of treating people. However, for a Westerner, it does lend itself to a few problems as the innate tendency to favour accuracy starts to be overshadowed by the need for painstaking tact.
As Elmer points out, the major conflict between the Western mentality and that held by the rest of the world stems from this: Westerners assume that you can separate the person from the problem, action, or idea. For example, when a Canadian points out the flaws in a plan, unless we're really overbearing about it, we don't expect a person to be hurt or offended. However, in the East, the person and the idea are one. To criticize the idea is to criticize the person.
Contrary to what we believe in the West, we must not allow logic and truth to be paramount, at the cost of human dignity. When we criticize someone directly in 2/3 of the world, we are essentially calling them "Raca". And as Jesus says, those who diminish their brothers as worthless are in danger of the fires of hell (Matt 5:22).
Those in the East believe that a person's words depend on his character, and his character depends on his words. As Carl Becker puts it, "Since one of our primary duties is to be respectful to men then we should sooner allow their mistakes to pass uncriticized than exhibit a lack of proper respect for their words and hence their selves."
How much wisdom we need to navigate this tricky shift in mindset, while still transmitting the truth of the good news about Jesus!
Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Conflict. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. (content taken from pp. 47-50)