Thursday, January 17, 2013

Will Miss #507 - people try (hard) to understand


I had a conversation recently with a friend about communication among native speakers of the same language. In particular, she and her family were having some issues trying to understand why a new person of their acquaintance seemed not to be true to her word. It is possible that this person is not actually meaning what she says, but it's also possible that she doesn't mean what they think she's saying.

To help make that clearer, I'd like to offer a personal example. My husband sometimes will say, "I'm thinking about pizza for dinner." When I hear this, I hear a request or an explicit expression of intention. When he says this, he's not being concrete at all. He's merely vocalizing a notion he's entertaining among other possible notions. We've been married for going on 24 years, and we still don't speak the same language when we are speaking the same language. 

Communication isn't only about words. It's also about patterns that are set in ones own social circle or family. My family made "requests" all of the time by expressing vague desires. They expected that the rest of us would understand the true intention. My husband didn't operate that way. Neither way is "wrong". It's all about context. In the context of my family, my husband would be failing constantly to "get" things. In the context of my communication with him, I'm always reading into things.

In Japan, I found that I rarely experienced this sort of problem because both sides were trying hard to communicate and understand as well as possible. Here, people are not even aware of this issue and, when misunderstandings occur, they can sometimes become adamant that they were clear and you misunderstood due to intellectual shortcomings or willful desires to frustrate.*

The language and culture gap brought a strong motivation to understand and took ego out of the picture when misunderstandings occurred. I miss the way in which people were always trying their best to be understood and to understand rather than on believing that the other party had somehow failed.

*To be clear, this does not happen with my husband and me. I use a personal example, but we don't have arguments or tension over this because we know it happens and that it's just one of those things.

6 comments:

  1. "Here, people are not even aware of this issue and, when misunderstandings occur, they can sometimes become adamant that they were clear and you misunderstood due to intellectual shortcomings or willful desires to frustrate."

    This happens with a sibling of mine ALL the time. It's as if the moment words leave her mouth it is a new, set in stone plan. And it must be followed or she will then label you a flake and be upset. Example: She has a housewarming the first weekend of February. I received an invitation but I already have standing plans that weekend. If I call her to decline the invitation, I am flaking. Because getting an invitation means that I already agreed to free my calendar for her event. Very selfish gal but I love her dearly. But communication issues arise between her and other family members constantly.

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  2. "[In the US], people are not even aware of this issue and, when misunderstandings occur, they can sometimes become adamant that they were clear and you misunderstood due to intellectual shortcomings or willful desires to frustrate."

    Oh... My wife is like this, but she's Japanese... I still agree with your point as a generality, however.

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  3. SusieTron: I'm a little surprised at how, when I mention this, people say, "yes! this has happened to me!" I shouldn't be, but I think this would be a very interesting psychological study and something that is worth looking into and teaching people about to promote greater empathy and more effective communication.

    Ἀντισθένης: Is your wife communicating with you in the same language? I think this only applies when you have two parties who fundamentally recognize that they are struggling through a second language issue. It could be that, with your situation, the whole push to be understood due to recognized language barriers has been pushed aside by the level of intimacy. As always, this is my subjective experience as someone who was never a part of a Japanese family. ;-) YMMV.

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    1. A good question, but I am pretty sure that's not it, due to us using both languages, my proficiency in hers, and her fluency in mine. She has plenty of good qualities, but accepting error is not one. Sounds worse than it really is.

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  4. Wow, I have a co-worker who is Iranian and has terrible English. I have a very stressful time trying to work with him because I can't understand what he is saying and he constantly misunderstands what I say. It has got to a point where at times when I have to discuss something with him, I start the discussion already feeling tired and wary. Predictably, we end up arguing.

    "Here, people are not even aware of this issue and, when misunderstandings occur, they can sometimes become adamant that they were clear and you misunderstood due to intellectual shortcomings or willful desires to frustrate."

    On reflection, perhaps many times the arguments could be avoided if I had been more patient in communicating. I certainly don't like the person I become when speaking to that co-worker.

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    1. One thing that I have to say is that Japanese people are more accommodating, patient, and interested in pleasing others. This isn't genetic, but it is cultural. Since they have a culture of "reading the air", they are also accustomed to trying to figure out what is being said when they aren't sure they understand. They also have a much greater concern for protecting their relationships and are more likely to set their own interests aside to do so.

      It's possible that your coworker comes from a place culturally which encourages your frustration. I wouldn't be so quick to conclude that you need to be more patient, but I can say that being so rarely makes a situation worse. ;-) However, I can fully understand why that would be terribly stressful. I think that the attitude of the person you are trying to communicate with has a profound impact on your response. Even if you try hard to understand him, if he isn't trying just as hard to understand you, then it can be pretty hopeless.

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