Black-and-white image of Japanese people riding escalators with strict etiquette to stand on the right side, observing a high-context culture
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One of the things that makes it a bit harder to enjoy life in a foreign country is the difficulty of understanding cultural context. Japan is generally considered a high-context culture, meaning people communicate based on inherent understanding. The US, on the other hand, is considered a low-context culture, relying largely on explicit verbal explanations to keep everyone on the same page.

The culturally appropriate behaviors of high-context cultures can be challenging in their own right, but they’re even more so because you cannot just ask people what to do (or expect them to tell you). In the US, for example, you can ask your office about the appropriate dress code at work, and your boss might talk to you directly if you step out of line. In Japan, you’re expected to know that your coworker commenting on the size of your earrings (even if it sounds like a compliment) is a cue to rethink the jewelry.

If you don’t get this hidden meaning, you might be considered KY (kuki yomenai), literally meaning you “can’t read the air.”

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Deciphering a High-Context Culture with 2 Premises

So what does it take to decipher the behaviors of a high-context culture like Japan?

There are two fundamental skills you’ll need.

Observation

The use of observation in a high-context culture is not just about watching other people. It’s about actively observing all the details of nonverbal behaviors and communication, such as facial expressions and gestures.

Inference

Inference, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “the process of deriving the strict logical consequences of assumed premises.”

What are the “assumed premises” of Japanese interactions? Well, there are several.

First is the ethical doctrine that human nature is fundamentally good. Even with no external influence or threat of punishment (fines, imprisonment, etc.), Japanese culture dictates that people voluntarily demonstrate generosity.

Second is the commitment to empathy as a good and desirable human behavior. To gain a sense of empathy, you must consider yourself and others not as separate entities, but as one connected entity. That is to say, putting yourself in others’ shoes is considered a praiseworthy act.

These assumed premises are the source of orderly Japanese behavior. Take queuing, for example. Japanese people, on the whole, will queue for things without cutting in line because there is a general assumed premise of respect, even among strangers. This might sound familiar—it resembles the Golden Rule in Western culture of treating others as you want to be treated. And just like the Golden Rule, assumed premises inform both simple and complex behaviors.

Japanese friends having a beer in a high-context culture observe rules about drink orders
Even having a beer in a high-context culture like Japan comes with rules. | iStock/AzmanL

How to Enjoy a Beer in a High-Context Culture

Here’s a classic high-context culture example from Japan. When ordering the first drink at a nomikai (drinking party), one tends to order the same drink as everyone else. Why? On the surface, certainly, this behavior shows conformity with others in your party. Look deeper, however, and you can see that the act is also selfless: it saves time for the waiters preparing drinks and saves the people in your group from having to wait for the toast. If one person orders a cocktail when everyone else gets beer, the cocktail will likely come last, leaving everyone else waiting, beer in hand.

What are the assumptions here? There are two.

1) You, as a customer, don’t want to make other people in your party wait because of your personal preference.

2) You, as a person with empathy, know that the waiter will do his best to prepare the drinks as fast as possible, and you don’t want to put undue pressure on him by ordering something different.

In such a situation, everyone is reading the air. Everyone is putting themselves in everyone else’s shoes. And no one says a word about it.

Adjusting Long-Term to a High-Context Culture

If you live in Japan long enough and keep a close eye on these assumptions, you’ll find that many of the Japanese behaviors that seemed mysterious reveal themselves to be, ultimately, very logical. This isn’t to say that understanding high context behavior patterns is easy. It takes time and critical observation. But things should be a little easier if you consider the assumed premises of human nature and empathy.

Luckily, it’s easy to practice. Try going to a park and seeing how kids are being taught to behave by their parents. Put your detective hat on and infer the premises behind each act of discipline.

In this Technovate era, one can, of course, also use technology. G-Mode actually created a game called “Kuukiyomi” (available for Nintendo and Sony platforms) to help people examine social situations. Players face simulations in which they need to read the air, and the game scores how well they do so. It’s easy training to understand the hidden assumptions within Japanese culture.

Whether you’re observing kids at the park or in a simulation at home, developing the skill to understand the underlying assumptions of Japan’s high-context culture will earn you strong cultural skills to behave in appropriate ways, gain respect from others, and live happily ever after in Japan.

At least socially.