all things unsaid

October 17, 2010 § 1 Comment

I’m going to be honest about something here: I’m really, really bad at confrontation and all things related to uncomfortable situations.  Which are not to be confused with awkward situations, because I’ve definitely mastered those. ———->


No, I’m talking about instances of extreme avoidance such as my traumatic three-hour stint huddled in the girls’ bathroom avoiding Michael Adams, the boy who wanted to dance together at the 7th grade end-of-school party, because I just couldn’t bear to tell him I didn’t want to dance with him.  Or the time when I felt so bad about breaking up with a high-school boyfriend that for two weeks I tried valiantly to end things via intense brain waves and feigning confusion whenever he approached me in the halls…It’s only gotten worse, believe me.

And here in America, where everyone speaks their mind, you have to offer explicit explanations for these kinds of awful scenarios.  So instead of just artfully ignoring the embarrassing and the unpleasant, you actually have to explain to someone that you don’t want to hang out with them because their feet really, really smell.

It’s very difficult to have this kind of cultural expectation bearing down on my feeble attempts at speaking truth in times of conflict.  So you can imagine my delight when I realized that my tendency to be as indirect as possible is perfectly suited for the Japanese language, where undesirable explanations and feelings are avoided until the utter end of a sentence, and even then sometimes not even voiced at all.  I’ve never known a language that made better use of the ellipsis and all of its unspoken, omitted glory.

For example, it’s better in Japanese to list off a myriad of excuses interspersed with expressions of frustration and disappointment when turning down an invitation.  So rather than just saying, “No, I can’t go, I’m sorry” to your colleague at work, in Japanese it ends up sounding more like this: “Oh!  Oh no, oh dear, that’s very, very–your offer is extremely kind, I would normally, oh dear, today is not so…hmmmm, this is unfortunate, I’m very sorry, you see I’m a little…” With the accompanying face of tortured worry, of course.

This kind of typically-Japanese response evinces the more apparent importance of politeness in the language, where as many as four ‘levels’ of speech must be used to express the correct level of politeness and respect, even in day-to-day exchanges.  In America, however, such formalized propriety would be considered somewhat pompous or stuffy among friends, family, and work.  And certainly the lengthy, circumspect explanations offered when turning someone or something down in Japanese would communicate very little to an American audience, leaving them wondering, perhaps, if their question has been answered at all.

It may be that such a cultural discrepancy has little hope for crossing the language barrier, but this kind of dissimilarity is a haven of much-needed passivity for someone who embraces extreme avoidance as a solution to confrontation with the uncomfortable :)


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§ One Response to all things unsaid

  • jennwink says:

    I can relate, I’m a champion avoider as well. Confrontations literally make me feel faint. I just might have to move to Japan. Having taken some anthropology and linguistics courses I find it interesting how the language is built around this cultural value. Very cool!

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