Monday, November 27, 2017


This is the last of our series on how different cultures conceptualize ideas in different ways, reminding you to be sure to communicate in a style that Americans will readily grasp. This Tip discusses the Oriental pattern, particularly evident in Japan and to a lesser extent in Korea and Southeast Asia. It is the most radically different model from the direct, to-the-point American pattern.
The Oriental model can be illustrated as a circle spiraling inward in a concentric pattern until at the very center, when the end-point is reached, the conversational point is made. This pattern is built upon the two things that are most anathema to Americans and the English language in general. Consequently, it can cause the greatest confusion and misunderstanding.

First and central to American discourse is the fact that Americans are uncomfortable with silence. They will fill any space with words, even if those words are not substantive but merely “fillers” (recall an earlier Tip about “small talk”).

By contrast, the Japanese, and others mentioned here, include silence in every message. For them, moments of silence reveal a respectful, thoughtful attitude and serve to separate conversational points with deliberate pauses. When an Asian speaker follows the Oriental pattern of the “inward spiral,” blending stated thoughts with moments of silence, Americans do not know when he is “finished” or has made his point!

A second great difference is that the Japanese language often omits what Americans would consider crucial grammatical words, such as some pronoun subjects and certain verb tenses. English requires these. English also employs frequent use of grammatical connectors, whether they be subordinate clauses, clarifying phrases, or connecting conjunctions. Thoughts are never left to chance, but instead are spelled out repeatedly in various forms. Americans look for these signals as they try to follow an argument. By contrast, a thought’s “point” presented in the Oriental pattern can be so hidden and embedded in the sequence of spoken and silent moments, that Americans can become hopelessly lost. They may also wonder if the speaker is himself clear on the process leading to his idea or message.

In America, Asian speakers should be sure to keep their train of thought flowing with words, including those that serve specifically to clarify the meaning and sequence of the speaker’s thoughts.

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