Why ‘reading the air’ is essential in Japan

In Japan the expression ‘kuuki yomenai’ (literally, someone unable to read the air) was added to the national lexicon a few years ago, perhaps in response to the influx of international company executives who were singularly unable to do so. Reading the air means to read between the lines by listening intently for implicit messages – not a skill we necessarily associate with the world of corporate business.

Say what you mean

In low-context cultures like that of UK and US, we are conditioned to assume a low level of shared context, that is a comparative lack of implicit knowledge linking speaker and listener. Our preferred communication style is epitomised by the axiom ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say’, as well as the conventional recipe for successful public speaking: ‘Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them and finally, tell them what you’ve just told them.’

Two countries separated

Where a culture will fall on the Low-Context – High-Context Communicating Scale depends on a subtle interplay of language and history. High-context countries tend to have a long shared history and are strongly relationship-orientated. Japan is an island society with a homogeneous population sharing a network of complex connections. The US, by contrast, is a much younger country, shaped by huge waves of immigration from diverse backgrounds. Thus Americans learned rapidly that if they wanted to make themselves understood, they needed to be as explicit as possible. This perhaps explains why the great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, once observed that, “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language”. We Brits are much less direct in our communication style, drawing on nonverbal behaviours to imply meaning. Verbal messages, meanwhile, are often understated or laced in ambiguity with liberal application of sarcasm and irony.

A multicultural team

So what’s the best strategy for communication in a multicultural team? The answer is low-context processes: organisational charts, written objectives and a system of explicit recaps and summaries, both oral and written. Whilst putting things in writing may indicate a lack of trust in some high-context cultures, if attention is paid to getting whole team buy-in for communications’ processes that they themselves have helped to design, then the smooth running of the organisation should be assured.

Meyer, E., 2014. The culture map: Breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. NY: Public Affairs.

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