If you are a foreigner working in Japan, you may have heard the phrase ‘kuuki ga yomenai’ 空気が読めない (a person who ‘cannot read the air’). It is said that women read the air better than men in Japan, but everyone is supposed to understand what is implicitly said, especially in a business setting. As you may know, the Japanese communication style is very indirect, what is said is not always what is meant. In the same way, what is not said has a meaning, you must ‘understand the atmosphere’: a silence, a look – if it is a glance or a gaze, the message conveyed is different, etc. Reading the air comes with time, it is a trial-and-error process. But to facilitate your learning, here are a few tips for you.
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What Does Reading the Air Mean?
Reading the air, it is following the unspoken rules, it is pouring sake in your colleague’s glass at the right moment, it is avoiding a subject that will embarrass people, it is understanding ‘no’ when you hear ‘I don’t know what the others will think about this.’ It is reading body language, having common sense and reacting to the smallest hints. In other words, it is ‘reading between the lines’. You need it in every situation, not only at work. People don’t learn how to read the air at school, they learn this social knowledge over time. Many are bullied, have a hard time making friends or finding a job because they don’t master this skill. But if they do, they become more conscious about what other people think and feel, resulting in the well-known Japanese patience and politeness.
Because Japan is a society where hierarchy is important, you must figure out how to position yourself when interacting with others. Should you use a respectful language, a more casual language? There are many variations in Japanese depending on who you are talking to (a senpai, a teacher, a friend, a family member, a child, etc.). For example, ‘to eat’ can translate as taberu (informal), tabemasu (formal) or meshiagarimasu (honorific), among others. How do you know which one should be used? By reading the air, nothing else. Of course, you can find information about the other person beforehand or wait for your colleagues to speak first. The way you speak to someone, however, also depends on your status and your relationship with him/her. Besides, it is essential to have an understanding of the Japanese layers of culture.
The Worries of Japanese Companies
At work, you are supposed to know how to speak to your boss, your colleagues, your customers, but also when to speak and what to do. If you don’t read the air well, you may not be part of important discussions or meetings. Your boss or manager may fear a mistake from you and would rather put you aside.
To notice who would be a perfect leader, a boss usually observe how his/her employees behave and who people turn to when there is a problem. In the same way, to be a good leader, you have to analyze your environment carefully and don’t neglect the importance of indirect communication.
In an international setting, however, reading the air seems difficult. Because it is cultural, it is hard for a foreigner to understand what is meant, and for a Japanese to explain an opinion clearly and directly. It results in miscommunication, missteps, frustration and sometimes in a failure.
How to Get Better at Reading the Air
The only way to understand others is to learn about their culture, but also to make mistakes. It is a trial-and-error process: if you misinterpret or missed an implicit message, you will notice at one point that something is wrong. Ask your Japanese friends or search on the Internet what happened (for example, if someone seemed really interested in your project, but doesn’t contact you afterward because you talked about money when he/she wanted to build a relationship). It will come over the years, don’t worry. At least, you will have some funny anecdotes to tell! But to avoid committing the most common mistakes, read about Japanese business etiquette, it will help!
Reference: e.globis.jp/career-success/reading-the-air-invisible-rules-that-stifle-japanese-companies/ lsa.umich.edu/psych/news-events/all-news/faculty-news/how--reading-the-air--keeps-japan-running.html blog.luckywifi.net/kuuki-wo-yomu-reading-the-wind-how-to-understand-japanese-social-relations-and-why-it-is-better-to-give-up-on-it/ 4.bp.blogspot.com/-GtEFU8PrTJk/UfK8XgBMXJI/AAAAAAAASrY/pzRmYI0Io9s/s1600/3.jpg www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/kuuki-yomenai www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140602121643-10956893-want-to-succeed-in-japan-learn-how-to-read-the-air/