Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Random Thoughts: Space for Honesty

I'm taking a break from my recollections about the end of my time in Japan. Frankly, it's still an emotionally difficult thing to write about and this post has been percolating for awhile so I'll offer it here as a brief interlude. Thanks to those who take the time to read all of my prattle. :-)

As attentive readers may recall, my husband and I came back to the U.S. so he could go to graduate school and become a qualified therapist. This was a path I once pondered traveling, but have since decided is not for me - at least not at this time. Life experience was the main reason for my change of heart. Such work is not easy and requires a certain temperament and acceptance of the limits people have in regards to personal change. I can possess and have displayed such understanding and tolerance, but would prefer not to have it required of me on a regular basis - again, at least not at this time.

Given how hard I know the work can be, on several occasions, I have assured my husband that, if he has a change of heart and wants to abandon this path, it is okay. Even if  we spend all of our savings helping him achieve the credentials and he spends the years and 3000 hours of (likely unpaid) time to get licensed, it is not going to upset me if he decides to walk away and we just do something else. I didn't realize this until recently, but my saying that is providing him with the space to be honest. If I were to adopt an attitude of "this had better work after uprooting our life in Japan and spending all of our money," he would have to keep any reservations or changes of heart a secret for fear of creating a rift between us. So far, my husband remains absolutely satisfied with the path he's on and is 100% committed to doing the work he is training to do. I remain, however, open to the possibility that it could change and am emotionally prepared to accept that.

The topic of secret-keeping and lying has come more prominently to my mind because of a book I've been reading, but it's something that I have rolled over in my mind many times because of the cultural aspects of such things in various cultures. I've written before about "tatamae" ("public face") and "honne" ("true face") in Japanese culture and about how lying is much more socially acceptable in Japan than in the U.S.

People in Japan expect you to lie. In fact, they'd rather you lie than tell a truth which upsets the apple cart. Even if they know you're lying, it's okay because they often accept that it is in the service of keeping a (superficially) smooth relationship in place. It's not a betrayal or a deception in at least some cases. It's about harmony.

While thinking about the idea of providing people with the "space for honesty", I considered how little space there is for that in Japanese culture. Is there less of it and therefore lies are culturally accommodated, or is there simply greater "honesty" about the necessity of lies in all relationships? Is the very existence of terms like tatamae and honne an indication of a greater wisdom of the required necessity of dishonesty in life? I can't say I have an answer for that. It is a judgement call. I can only say that I admire discretion (withholding saying something disruptive or hurtful), but I despise dishonesty (actual lying).

Obviously, people lie in America as well. They lie a fair amount. They just don't tend to do it as often in the service of good relationships. In fact, it has been often the case that people in the U.S. obnoxiously spew out their "truth" because everyone must know their "honest" opinions. They absolutely must, no matter how hurtful, insensitive, or self-serving a "truth" is, reveal it. To do otherwise would be dishonest and inauthentic, right? The people in your life have to understand how you feel about things and, by God, we Americans are "brave" enough to put it out there even if it means we'll be disliked... except... well, we only do it in general with people who we don't care about or who care about us so much that our self-serving truths won't drive them away.

My sense with Americans is that they are not so much "honest" as incapable of self-control when it comes to things that they are emotionally charged about. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the Japanese were impassive to the point of seeming to be dead inside. They didn't seem to get worked up about anything and recoiled at times at the very thought of being passionate about an issue as being distasteful. Personally, I think there's got to be something between these two extremes (and I speak in general here, so please don't make comments saying that you know people in both cultures who don't fit the generalities I'm offering - I can't talk about these things if we're going to account for every anecdotal experience - I also knew/know atypical people as well so let's all agree not to be pedantic just to stake out some territory in proving that I must be "wrong" as you/me/your uncle's cousin's dog know people in Japan who are opinionated and gentile Americans who wouldn't dream of sharing an opinion).

As I mentioned in a post about my leaving Japan, I was not myself with Japanese people and, during goodbye social occasions, it was remarked by one of my students that she did not know the "real" me. She knew this specially crafted person who acted only in accord with her needs. The truth was that I felt I had very little space in Japan to be honest near the end of my time there. At the beginning, that space didn't exist, but I tried to squeeze in some of my American-style "honesty" (i.e., braying about my opinions) whenever I could. I realized over time that that's not the way life works in Japan, so I sublimated large parts of my personality.

This change wasn't exactly painful, but it also wasn't easy. I listened to obnoxious, sometimes offensive opinions, and did not offer counter-arguments nor did I agree. Part of my withholding was knowing that I had to have good relationships with the people I was dealing with. Part of it was knowing that, no matter what I said, it wasn't going to change minds.

One of my former students liked to talk about how Korea should be grateful for how Japan occupied it during World War II. He made points about how the infrastructure was advanced by Japan's presence (which may be true, I'm not an expert), but I'm pretty sure the Koreans would trade the gains made in any area for a lack of the brutality Japan brought to their countrymen. Not pointing such things out to him, and not pointing out that the Japanese probably weren't (justifiably) grateful for what happened to them in World War II even though they came out (arguably) more advanced for having been beaten and occupied by the U.S., was largely in part because I knew he'd never think anything other than what he thought. Some part of not saying anything was also not wanting to alienate a student by giving an honest opinion. I knew there was no space for that in my relationship with him or pretty much any other Japanese person.

When I came back to the U.S., I was looking forward to being "myself" again and finding the space for honesty to be much bigger than it was in Japan. What I found was that the space here is bigger, but only when it is occupied by the other party, or only if you are indifferent to the consequences of being in that space. I have been very careful about how I offer counter-arguments with people and I have always made them deliberately with the full awareness that a brittle ego on the other side won't take what I say well.

On those occasions when I have been "honest" in ways that I wouldn't have been in Japan, the results have not been positive in general. In one case, I was stunned at how simply failing to agree or hesitating in a manner which made it clear that I did not agree without offering any overt disagreement brought forth a rather hostile reaction. On other occasions, I have found that overt emotionalism is often used to stop any sort of discourse which offers resistance to the opinion being proffered. Sometimes, that emotionalism is increasing agitation or abrupt changing of the subject. At others, it has actually been tears and overt expressions of anger.

It seems that, unless I want to alienate or upset people, I have just as little space for honesty here as I did in Japan. The main difference so far has been that I'm far more likely to be on the receiving end of polarized opinions from other people here and I'm far more likely to experience emotional outbursts when expressing my viewpoint. In Japan, the reaction tended to be that people withdrew or said nothing. I'd say that it's as likely in either culture that I'll actually lose a relationship or experience distancing. It takes on different forms, but I don't find that is generally a better response to honest opinions here than there was there.

For me, this is more than an academic exercise. Expectations play a big part in how we perceive the quality of an experience. As an outsider, I didn't expect the Japanese to conform to my way of thinking and didn't expect that they'd react well to honesty that wasn't in total agreement with their sense of things. As an "insider", I'm disappointed at the way people react in America. When I was "one of them", that is, when I was highly emotionally reactive and spewing opinions as if they were facts (and I used to do that, too - before Japan changed me), it didn't bother me. However, I've changed, and I can't go back to being insensitive and inconsiderate. I can't go back to saying whatever I want and being emotional with people who disagree and it is another piece of the difficulty I've experienced in returning to life here.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm speaking of is not expecting agreement, but merely not being abandoned as a worthy acquaintance or friend or treated with emotional outbursts in the face of disagreement. I'm also not expecting people to be utterly dispassionate or "Spock-like" in their emotional control nor for them to hold it together all of the time. We all have topics which send us over the edge emotionally. I've found that people tend to become agitated if they're not in an echo chamber of assent regardless of how important the topic is. I wonder if a piece of what has contributed to this is the fracturing of media and the ability to find someone out there who will feed your point of view (e.g., Fox news for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals) such that people decreasingly develop an understanding or tolerance for dissent.

What I'm looking for is some degree of respect and tolerance in the face of differing opinions. Going back to what I said about my husband and offering him space to be honest if he changes his mind about pursuing his current career path, I wouldn't be happy if we spent a lot of time, money, and energy and he ended up changing his mind, and he wouldn't be happy either, but I'd accept it without getting hysterical or worked up or trying to pressure him to change his mind. It's not about consent or agreement. It's about not making people regret their candor by punishing them in some fashion for it. I expected to be censured in some fashion in Japan for any sort of candor.

The way things have gone in the U.S. were not as I anticipated. I think that I've changed, but also Americans have changed. I believe that the more inner-focused life that most people lead (due to the effects of leading more insular lives - something aided greatly by the internet and the vast amount of television options and focus on devices like cell phones and tablets) has lead to less socialization resulting in poorer emotional management skills in the face of any sort of resistance, greater narcissism and a focus on agency over community, and even further unraveling of any notion that there are such things as societal "norms" in regards to behavior. Metaphorically, each person has a castle and each is a monarch and rules as he or she pleases. Those who defy the royal will face exile.

Space for honesty doesn't just mean you say what you think and feel. It means that, when other people say what they think and feel and you don't like it, you don't make them regret their honesty. I try to afford people this space when I talk to them. It doesn't mean I agree with them, but it means that I don't have a meltdown or become personally offended when speaking about issues. I exercised this control all of the time in Japan, and I do it here as well, but I've found that such space is rarely offered to me in return and I've got to find a way to be okay with that. This is part of my ongoing adjustment to life here in the U.S. I'm mentioning it not in the way of criticism, though it may sound critical, but merely as another big boulder I've discovered on the road to feeling at home in my own country again.


  1. This is really interesting, and without wanting to get excessively complicated, can I suggest that the fragmentation of media has played a role in changing the nature of disagreements? When I was an undergraduate in Australia from 2000 onward we had lively discussions in every tutorial, with point and counter point and often passionate argument. When I began teaching undergraduate classes in 2008 (again in Australia) my students were reluctant to engage with each other or to say anything that might cause argument. They sat silently and stared at the floor, or engaged with me but not each other. In the intervening years the rise of niche media (particularly internet communities) meant that for many of those students, they had simply never had to engage with people who disagreed with them because they spent all their time in like-minded on-line groups. They were uncomfortable with contestation and had difficulty separating disagreements of opinion with rejection. I find myself reacting the same way these days... it is easier to "unlike" or "block" people I disagree with then to engage them in debate as I would have when I was younger. Sorry to veer slightly off-topic, but it's a 'generational' change I have been really noticing lately.

    1. I'm happy to "complicate" things, Sophelia. As it was, I had a lot of problems keeping this posts as "brief" as I did - there is just a lot to be said and pondered and you make excellent points. I especially agree that it is easier to block or hide people who you disagree with. It's like taking a remote control and changing the channel - only it is being done with people instead of devices.

      I recently read a study which linked narcissism and agency and how greater agency breeds greater narcissism. If you take narcissistic people and force them (within the structure of an experiment) to socialize, they will become less narcissistic because they have to confront a situation in which they sacrifice agency. The conclusion I reached was that having greater autonomy to do what you want and only consume what you want creates people who are less tolerant and more self-involved. That means that the situations you mention (like-minded on-line groups, blocking, etc.) contributes to this circular problem - the agency to control what and who you associate with to such a fine degree does appear to reduce tolerance as well as narcissism!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  2. Wow, wonderful insights. I will say this about my experiences between Japan and America - and this is from a white American male perspective:

    Americans put a great deal of emphasis on being 'up front' and also reward socially aggressive/extroverted behavior. And, to be honest, I think that much of it can be attributed to America's unique history of immigration and having so many different people from different backgrounds/religions/creeds, etc.. When your first reaction is to someone who is different (and it happens far more frequently in America than in Japan and it has historically always been that way), the immediate human reaction is to be wary. Therefore, Americans put an emphasis on expressing their true feelings because the counterpart is coming from an angle of 'I can't really trust you.' Moreover, our melting pot culture is basically said 'welcome to America, land of opportunity, what's your name again?' And, for that reason, Americans value extroversion.

    I have a son and daughter. My son is introverted (relatively) and my daughter is tremendously extroverted. And, what is interesting is that I would rather my son he raised in Japan than America and my daughter in America than Japan. And, I guess in a way that sums up why I agree with this post so much:

    Americans are very good at being extroverted - and the consequences of it are what you are seeing. Extroversion at a superficial level really, really works well in America.....especially in a workplace setting, business setting, etc.. Extroversion at a personal level....sometimes not so much.

    Japanese value extroversion that is, 'textbook' extroversion in the form of being precisely the right kind of friendly and polite...but they value the introversion and are much more group oriented with respect to relatively less extroverted people.

    2 examples I can think of is this:

    1. In America, it is not uncommon for someone sitting next to you on an airplane flight to give you their entire life story (good or bad). Virtually any of country's people are aghast at that and - quite frankly - it is uniquely American. However, what is consistent with your notion is that the American who is giving YOU their life story expects YOU to listen to THEM. In a way, it is rude, but in a way it illustrates that uniquely American 'tell it like it is' mentality.

    2. My Japanese wife always comments how American parties are very, very difficult to navigate for foreigners since the American party is pretty much 'hey, welcome to party, here's the cocktails, help yourself - and fend for yourself.'

    So, while Americans value extroversion and honesty, it usually has to be on their terms.

    1. I want to thank you for sharing your observations, experiences and insights as it is immensely interesting to me. I think that what you say about Americans and it being on their terms has been greatly my observation and what you're linking to about history and immigration is spot-on. Lately, I've been reviewing certain parts of world history and seeing the links between history and culture in a much more concrete way. That's probably a subject for a long (and long-winded) future post, but what you say about the "fending for yourself" mentality that your wife mentioned fits also with American history and culture. A country in which people expanded into a frontier and had to make it on their own reflects the entire "welcome to the party, now fend for yourself mentality." In essence, "welcome to the U.S., now find you own way here." Some people ended up like the Donner party and some people ended up like Andrew Carnegie. We tend to believe people succeed or fail based on their own hard work (disjoint agency). This suits American history because of how the country was created whereas Europeans, with their history of monarchies, status-oriented cultures, etc. tend to see luck (where you were born, who you know, who you were born to, etc.) as being of greater weight and therefore embrace conjoint agency (you have to help each other).

      Realizing that we are all on a train driven forward by our country's history makes the differences less about choice and more about where you were born. This is a point I understand - we don't choose our culture as much as it chooses us. Of course, if you can step outside of it, you can more deliberately be a different person, but first, you have to develop awareness of your culture and what shapes it, but that is also another post for the future.

      Thanks again!


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