I thought that today I would continue on in sharing some of the things I've been learning from "Cross-Cultural Conflict", by Duane Elmer. As I'd mentioned before, two thirds of the world (including Japan) uses indirect methods as its primary form of communication. In fact, many of these cultures often find direct communication to be rude or cruel.

Instead, two-thirds of the world uses passive and stative voices very prominently in their communications. If you're like me, and have next-to-no formal knowledge of English grammar, the "stative" voice usually uses the verb "to be" followed by another verb (e.g., "the window was opened"), indicating status. These verb choices separate the person from the action, effectively eliminating the assignation of responsibility. As Elmer points out, the ambiguity these sentences means that no one is blamed for the undesirable events that might have resulted. Thus, no one is shamed.

Asian cultures often have one side of their personality that they will exhibit in public, and another that they will exhibit only in private. Maintaining one's public face is seen as very important, and thus shame (which jeopardizes the public face) is to be avoided at all costs.

In Thai, one word for shame literally means "to tear one's face off". Elmer interprets this word picture as the shamed person becoming ugly. However, I wonder if perhaps the "face" mentioned is the public face. If so, then having one's public face torn off would be a fundamental violation of one's privacy and personhood. If so, then understanding the concepts of shame and indirectness becomes of utmost importance.

I found Elmer's examples of how people might express themselves in the West vs. in the East to be very illuminating, so I've copied out a few of them here:

West                                                           East

I broke the plate.                                       The plate fell and broke.

I missed the bus.                                      The bus left without me.

We have a problem. Let's talk about it.    A problem exists. We must hope it goes away.

I was in an accident.                                My car was damaged.

As Canadians, I think that many of us use indirect forms of communication too, in certain circumstances. For instance, suppose a guest at my house breaks a glass.

Peter is in another room, and comes out to asking, "What happened?"

I would not say, "Our guest broke a glass." That would be extremely rude, and would cause embarrassment.

Instead, I would say, "A glass broke."  This would assign no blame to my guest.

So, it's not like this form of communication is completely foreign to us. It's just that the Japanese and two thirds of the world uses this type of communication to a much greater degree than we do in Canada.

One source of confusion, as we learn Japanese, has been the word jibun (pronounced "gee-boo-n"). I've always been a little puzzled the number of meanings associated with this word. My dictionary tells me that it can mean myself, yourself, himself, herself, or oneself. When listening to a Japanese person talk about more than one person, how on earth are we supposed to figure out to whose-self they are referring???

This has caused no small amount of confusion for me, but now I realize that the multiple meanings of jibun help to support indirect communication, which ultimately helps to save face. It's pretty amazing how indirectness can be built right into the fabric of a language.  


Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Conflict. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. (content taken from pp. 50-51,55)

(Picture source)