If you have Japanese friends or coworkers, you may have heard some of them laugh and call someone “KY.” The term kuuki ga yomenai (空気が読めない), often shortened to kuuki yomenai or KY, has been popular for several years in Japan. Literally translated, it (sometimes) jokingly applies to a person who “cannot read the air,” or is oblivious to social cues.
Reading the air is important in Japanese culture, which tends to be full of high-context communication and unspoken rules. But what started as Japanese slang among young people mocking their friends or complaining about annoying encounters can nowadays be heard in all sorts of situations.
In fact, the concept of people being KY is one that often troubles Japanese companies—especially when hiring international employees.
The Cultural Roots of Unspoken Rules
If you know anything about Japanese social situations, you probably know that harmony is king. Go to a restaurant in Tokyo, and you’ll often see a group of diners all order the same dish for lunch or a round of identical beers for the first drink of the evening. Group consensus is very important.
Even when it comes to negative feedback, even the Japanese language is designed to say “no” without rocking the boat. In a business setting, if a supervisor says, “I don’t know what others would think,” or “This might be a bit difficult,” that’s often a flat-out rejection.
Other terms reflect the Japanese value placed on emotional intelligence: aun no kokyu (“being perfectly in unison”) and anmokuchi (“tacit knowledge”) are just a few examples.
This implicit language barrier is a big reason why, even after years in the country, many non-Japanese residents still feel like outsiders. Reading the air and achieving that perfect unity are only possible after a lot of time spent studying or assimilating into a culture and overcoming differences. And once you’ve got the ability, the common ground you gain is based on accumulated past experiences.
Despite these high hurdles, those unable to follow unwritten rules or catch an unspoken message—the KY among us—easily become an object of scorn.
Communicating Unspoken Rules in Japanese Business
Different cultures value different communication cues. Japan likes its unspoken rules, while other countries want clear, precise verbal instruction. Others place a lot of value on reading body language. Toss these cultures together, and you can end up with a lot of tension, whether it’s a social gathering or business meeting.
Japanese employers worry that employees from abroad (particularly those with little or no experience in Japan) won’t be able to understand unspoken language or the need to come to a group consensus. This concern is even more acute alongside language barriers and differences in corporate hierarchies.
How do you explain an unspoken need to someone who doesn’t speak the language?
How do you convey the importance of consensus when someone is used to top-down management?
Luckily, as Japan inches toward a more diverse working culture, it’s slowly letting go of the absolute need for unity, particularly in a global setting. The most forward-thinking managers understand it may even be detrimental to business. After all, following unspoken rules requires a strong knowledge of context and others’ assumptions. Both are extremely difficult to grasp in a new or foreign culture.
Decommissioning Kuuki Yomenai
So if Japan knows that unspoken communication is ineffective, why can’t it change?
The big reason is that the the “air” we’re reading is invisible. Even those who understand the atmosphere of the time can’t really define it and sometimes don’t even notice it. It’s hard to change something if you don’t know exactly what you’re trying to change.
I once thought the answer was AKY (aete kuuki yomanai), or “purposefully not reading the air.” In other words, being deliberately provocative. But it turns out this carries the risk of just being dubbed KY! So the best countermeasure I’ve found instead is to make the unspoken tangible—label it with words.
The “air” or “atmosphere” is a shadow shaped by the consensus of a group. Shine a light on the problem by verbalizing it, and the problem disappears. You can then outline what each party’s concerns are and clearly identify the issues at hand.
Make no mistake: This will be a huge adjustment for many Japanese people, especially in the pressures of a corporate setting. Verbalizing concerns puts them at risk of being labeled “resisters.”
That’s why it’s important for non-Japanese employees to meet their Japanese coworkers halfway.
Learn about Japanese culture and high-context communication. Employ empathy. Use critical thinking to set out the pros and cons from a different perspective. Once you shed some light on the different ideas and opinions of a group, you can start to discuss them.
GLOBIS University trains MBA students thoroughly on verbal discussion techniques and logical thinking. More than ever, top performers in business are those who bring creation and innovation to areas where they are most needed. For the sake of diversity and globalization, we need to do more than read the air. We need a collective effort to update stagnant, ineffective corporate culture that stifles innovation.
The old unspoken rules may have worked in the past, but not anymore.