For this project, I decided to examine Japanese culture because one of my maternal aunts is actually from Japan and still has family living there. We have talked slightly about her childhood life; however, we did not dive deep into the details. Another reason I chose to investigate Japanese culture is because I encounter many international students while working at my job and I want to understand some of their behaviors that I have witnessed. Personally, I have had a few negative interactions with some of these students, and I feel that it was because of cultural differences. In the following, I will be comparing and contrasting the cultural value orientations and communication norms of American and Japanese cultures in hopes of obtaining a better understanding. First, we need to analyze the elements of the GLOBE taxonomy.
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Cultural Value Orientations
Power distance. According to Lustig and Koester (2013), The United States scores a -68 in the power distance category while Japan scores a -13. It is important to note that the average score is 0. While these are both negative scores, indicating low levels of power distance, the U.S. score is five times greater than Japan’s. This indicates that the U.S. places more importance on blurring the differences between social classes in order to create a harmonious system. Japan is a borderline hierarchy and therefore wage differences are greater and decisions are less democratic. These differences playout in their election system too. For example, according to Columbia University (2009), voters from a region are only allowed to vote for their preferred parties rather than the actual candidates. In America, it is preached that everyone is born equal and that anyone can become anything as long as they work hard. Although this is true in some cases, for the most part it blatantly ignores the ever-growing poverty line and our nation’s extremely unequal wealth distribution. Thus, America’s rating of -68 might need to be reevaluated. Power distance is most likely to play a role in communication between members from these two cultures in the sense that they might view one another as either upper or lower-class citizens. This can lead to bad judgements of character and might spark some rude comments.
Uncertainty avoidance. The U.S ranks a -2 on the scale while Japan ranks a -15. In terms of comparison, these are fairly similar. With the scores being pretty close to 0, it is safe to say that both cultures, more so America, are in the middle when it comes to uncertainty avoidance. This coincides with a belief that it is acceptable to be uncertain in some situations and completely unacceptable in others. According to Woolpert (n.d.), a great example of this in America is the Constitution. While Americans accept it to be the law, it has been amended and, thus, has created some slight uncertainty. Differences in uncertainty tolerance can have a massive effect in the business world. Imagine, if you will, two board members: one from the U.S and the other from Japan. Now think of a scenario in which they are required to be the deciding voices on a huge company merger. While the American may be more inclined to “take the plunge” and vote to move forward with the merger, the partner from Japan may be more hesitant. One can see how this might stir up some trouble.
In group collectivism. Both cultures score on the negative side in this category with Japan at a -68 and the U.S at a -121. These two scores are considered to be strong, so we can assume that both cultures encourage individuality and do not force group participation. Since both cultures are on the same side of the scale regarding this aspect, there most likely would not be any communication issues during an encounter.
Institutional collectivism. There is a great cultural difference when comparing this category. Japan scores a 222 while the U.S scores a -11. A high score in this sense represents a desire to distribute rewards based on group rather than individual interests and a low score represents the opposite. With the scores being so different, there would definitely be some tension. American culture typically encourages individual celebration and pride rather than group victories.
Gender egalitarianism. Both the U.S and Japan have fairly small negative scores: -1.79 and -2.2. This coincides with how most of the world views these two nations. While there are still concepts such as the glass ceiling in America, for the most part men and women are treated equally. There are also laws protecting against unfair treatment. This subject should not cause communication issues.
Assertiveness. These two nations are almost complete polar opposites. America ranks a whopping 111 while Japan sits at a -147. This is going to cause some major struggles during interactions. Americans will be more likely to be competitive and invasive while the other party will be modest and try to avoid confrontation. Honestly, this interaction will almost be a figurative representation of water and oil mixing together.
Performance orientation. Both nations score on the positive side; however, the U.S has a stronger orientation with a score of 96. With positive scores, these nations will value education more and try to shape the world to fit their needs. During an interaction, both participants should share a similar view thus reducing the potential for conflicts.
Future orientation. Both the Japanese and Americans believe in preparing today for tomorrow’s opportunities. In other words, events that are currently taking place are not as important as what is ahead. This is accurate in the U.S as we are constantly encouraged to plan ahead. In high school, students are expected to choose a college major by their sophomore year, and are frowned upon if they cannot decide. According to Hofstede (n.d), Japan ranks as one of the most future-oriented nations. The Japanese view their lives as very short moments in the long history of mankind. Since the two nations share similar views on this aspect, they would most likely not encounter communication issues.
Humane orientation. Yet again, the U.S and Japan are relatively similar in this category. Japan scores slightly higher, but both countries pride themselves in taking care of one another and being generous and kind. This is fairly true in America with programs such as social security and SNAP. Japanese extended families will often live under one roof in order to look after each other. This often is frowned upon in the U.S., so this might cause some communication issues.
Now that we have compared and contrasted each element of GLOBE individually, one can see that there are many similarities and a few major differences between Japanese and American cultures. With a little bit of compassion and understanding, communication interactions can improve. Next, it is necessary to discuss the communication norms for each culture and how they relate to one another.
Verbal Communication Norms
There are four main aspects to a culture’s verbal communication norms: turn-taking expectations, organizing and expressing ideas, amount of talking, and conversation topics. I will be drawing upon my own experiences as an American citizen when describing American culture. First, in regards to turn-taking, Americans are sort of a mixed bag. Some people that I encounter are very formal in their style: politely listening as I speak and patiently waiting for their turn to respond. Other people encountered choose to overlap, or speak before I am finished speaking, and this often leads to communication issues. Ideas become lost, participants grow frustrated, and it is overall disrespectful in American culture. On the other hand, according to Doi (1973), nonverbal communication is far more important than verbal in Japanese culture. Thus, the Japanese people are more likely to partake in respectful turn taking. Doi (1973) makes an even broader statement by saying that the Japanese people he studied believe Americans talk too much. This leads us to our next point.
When it comes to organizing and expressing ideas, these two cultures differ greatly. Americans will often speak before thoroughly constructing their ideas resulting in miscommunication. As stated by Doi (1973), Americans hate silence. We talk during dinner, formal meetings, and even funerals. Silence makes Americans uncomfortable and we take great measures to avoid it so much so that we will say just about anything to fill in the gaps between sound. Japanese culture is different in the sense that they are comfortable with silence. For example, according to Doi (1973), dinner is viewed as a time for nourishment and communion; thus, very little is said at the table. When something needs to be said, the communicator takes time to ensure the statement or question is well-thought-out and necessary. This also goes hand-in-hand with the amount of talking each culture does. The last element we will investigate is conversation topics.
In lecture, we partook in an activity in which we labeled elements of conversation as “public” or “private.” Not surprisingly, our class concluded many topics to be private as do so many other Americans. We keep a variety of information to ourselves such as body health, family member health, and personal finance. The few topics that we deemed appropriate for public consumption included hobbies, interests, favorite foods, quality of day, and other very broad topics. Americans choose not to share too much in efforts of saving face, or avoiding humiliation and embarrassment. In japan, the customs are the same. According to Locoroco (2015), the Japanese take their privacy very seriously to the extent that they have signs up on public transportation asking to please refrain from taking phone calls. This differs from American culture as I frequently hear individuals shouting on the bus about their sick mother, marital problems, or other very personal topics.
Analyzing these verbal communication aspects, it is easy to distinguish one clear difference between the two cultures: Americans talk far more than the Japanese do. This could explain some of the reasons why intercultural communication issues arise. If one party values privacy while the other values filling in silence, this can lead to negative consequences such as missed business opportunities and even destroyed friendships. When encountering one another, it is vital for members from each culture to respect the verbal norms of the other party. This leads us into our next major point for analysis: nonverbal communication norms.
Nonverbal Communication Norms
For this section, we will be analyzing eye contact behaviors, personal space, and touch. Americans are not fond of any of these concepts. For starters, we do view eye contact as a sign of respect; however, too much eye contact can be interpreted as a negative thing. If someone engages in prolonged eye contact, it can be mistaken as stalking or intimidation. On the other hand, if an individual makes no eye contact whatsoever, it can be taken as a lack of interest or self-confidence. Across the globe, eye contact is viewed entirely differently. According to Hoang (2014), eye contact means just the opposite: a sign of impoliteness and aggression. He states that whenever engaging with a Japanese individual, one should make brief eye contact but then focus on the person’s neck or shoulder instead. This is perhaps the biggest threat to an intercultural communication mishap because if the participants are unfamiliar with the other party’s cultural customs, it can result in misinterpretations, mixed signals, and unintended consequences.
Next, personal space. There are four distances, according to Hall, of personal space: public, social, personal, and intimate. According to a study performed by Ichihara (2004), Japanese individuals stand farther apart than Americans. He studied 11 pairs and measured the distance between their faces and toes. For the Japanese pairs, the average distance between faces was 56.09 cm, and for Americans, the average was 41 cm. This is a fairly similar distance, and the author attributed it to how each culture greets one another. The Japanese bow, so they need more space while Americans shake hands thus requiring closer proximity. To be honest, I was surprised by his findings as I am typically uncomfortable with how close Japanese individuals get to me during interactions. Of course, a lot depends of personal preference as well. It is slightly difficult to judge how this factor might affect communication encounters since A) the average distances between the two cultures are similar, but B) it greatly depends on personal preference.
Lastly, we must discuss touch. The Japanese culture views touch as unnecessary. According to Culture Crossing Guide (2014), it is a rare occasion to witness two strangers touching; especially two members of the same gender. Americans, on the other hand, fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to touching. While it is customary to shake a stranger’s hand, it would be inappropriate to kiss one on the cheek. Yet again, it also is a matter of personal preference. I, for example, cannot stand being touched by strangers even if it is on the shoulder. It makes me extremely uncomfortable. While these two cultures differ slightly on their touching views, I do not believe that it would be means of a communication mishap as long as each member does some light research.
Relational Communication Norms
For this last section, we will be comparing greeting rituals, introducing oneself and others, dealing with conflict, and common social episodes. All four of these aspects play key roles in intercultural encounters. If any of these elements are out of balance, the entire interaction can take a turn for the worse. First, greeting rituals are different between the two cultures. Americans will typically start a conversation with either a handshake, a hug, or a wave; depending on who they are talking to. These actions are typically accompanied by a greeting ritual if it is their first time meeting. This ties in with introduction customs. Usually, Americans are comfortable with introducing themselves; however, depending on the situation, another party may introduce them instead. Both methods are considered polite. On the contrary, the Japanese customarily bow towards one another rather than shaking hands. The depth of the bow is dependent on the formality of the interaction. Also opposite to American culture, introducing oneself is considered rude and unprofessional. They believe that you should also introduce strangers and wait to be introduced if you are the stranger.
Next, it is important to discuss how conflicts are handled in each culture. Americans tend to be confrontational in order to get their point across and jump to a resolution as quickly as possible. The Japanese prefer to be more reserved and save face. While this can sometimes be viewed as a beneficial behavior, it often can lead to being taken advantage of during interactions. Another factor that Americans take into play is the ability to keep their working and personal relationships with individuals separate. In other words, if one gets into a fight with another while at work, Americans are able to resolve the issue and not allow it to affect their personal relationship with the person. Although I was not able to find any research on the Japanese custom in regards to this, I believe that this would not be as easy for them since they tend to avoid conflict altogether. I feel that they would also be more inclined to take workplace conflicts more seriously and allow them to mix into their personal lives-which can be damaging to social and mental health.
Finally, it is necessary to compare some common social episodes found within these two cultures. Social episodes, or interaction sequences that are repeated over and over again, are a vital component of everyday life. They help individuals make sense of the world around them by providing insight into how to interpret verbal and nonverbal codes. An example, as stated by Lustig and Koester (2013), is the typical American classroom. A student will enter a room that has desks facing towards the front which is designated for the teacher. A student will never think to occupy that space, but instead will pick a seat, place their belongings on the floor or under the desk, keep their desk oriented the same way as the others, and possibly make light small talk with the other students around them. If any of these components are out of sync, a student or teacher will start to wonder what is wrong and how it needs to be addressed. This example is great because it makes greater meaning of something that many encounter every day and relates it to life itself. Other examples of American social episodes include riding the bus and shopping at the mall. While one may assume these episodes to play out similarly in other cultures, they can be very different.
According to Andrew (2011), school is somewhat similar in Japan compared to America, but there are some big changes. For starters, all children wear uniforms. Even though this happens in America sometimes, it is merely an option; whereas in Japan, it is mandatory. Next, the elementary school the author visited was much more, for lack of a better term, active than schools in the U.S. The students were engaging in acrobatic stunts with each other, writing poetry, and practicing calligraphy. The students were not merely expected to sit at a desk and listen to a lecture. In addition, and perhaps the most surprising to me, was the fact that the students help maintain the school. There are no janitors, cafeterias/servers, or crossing guards, but rather the students fulfill all of these roles. They keep their classrooms neat and organized, they serve lunch in their classrooms to their fellow students, and even grade themselves on appearance, attitude, and dress. The students were much more disciplined, but they also were having fun because, to them, this is a typical social episode.
Social episodes help blur the lines between the normal and abnormal elements of life. If there is a hiccup in any episode, the “filter lens” is removed and one begins noticing exactly how scripted their life is. However, this can be a beneficial thing in the sense that it helps open one’s eyes to the world around them and eliminate any ethnocentrism they may have. Social episodes can also be a negative part of life especially when traveling abroad. Because people grow so accustomed to their everyday lives, encountering another way of life can lead to culture shock and create negative communication interactions.
Although important, I do not believe that relational communication norms would lead to failed intercultural interactions. Typically, when encountering someone from another culture, one of the parties recognizes the differences and molds to the norms at hand. For example, if an American visits Japan, the locals realize that they are a tourist and do not expect them to speak Japanese or bow when being greeted. Rather, they will shake your hand and try to speak English at you. I feel that the same happens in America depending on the region.
In summary, there are some key differences between Japanese and American culture, but there are also many similarities. Analyzing communication norms, both verbal and nonverbal, we were able to imagine how an encounter between the two cultures might play out. I feel that I have gained a better understanding of the Japanese culture and can effectively recognize the differences we share. One of the biggest differences that I noticed was just how much Americans talk when compared to the Japanese. This might explain why some of my interactions have turned out poor. However, we are all simply human and are going to make mistakes. The important thing is that we strive to better ourselves and improve our intercultural competence.
- Lustig, M. W., & Koester, J. (2013). Intercultural competence: Interpersonal communication across cultures. Pearson.
- Columbia University. (2009). Electoral systems and the representative parties in Japan. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ealac/darakwon/tomizawa/Report-Electoral%20Systems%20and%20Representative%20Parties%20in%20Japan.pdf
- Woolpert, D. (n.d.). Uncertainty avoidance. Retrieved from https://www.communicationtheory.org/uncertainty-avoidance/
- Hofstede, G. (n.d.). Japan. Retrieved from https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/japan/
- Doi, T. (1973). The anatomy of dependence: The key analysis of Japanese behavior. Kodansha International.
- Hoang, L. (2014). Eye contact etiquette around the world. Retrieved from https://www.commisceo-global.com/resources/country-guides/germany-guide
- Ichihara, Y. (2004). Multicultural communication: A comparative study of American and Japanese employees. Business Communication Quarterly, 67(3), 287-303.
- Culture Crossing Guide. (2014). Japan: Personal space & touching. Retrieved from https://www.culturecrossing.net/basics_business_student_details.php?Id=125&CID=75
- Locoroco. (2015). What's rude in Japan? Retrieved from https://www.tofugu.com/japan/japanese-manners-and-etiquette/
- Ichihara, Y. (2008). Culture and communication: A comparative study of American and Japanese employees. Language and Intercultural Communication, 8(1), 56-69.