Episode 3: Age Ashi – Tripping Over One’s Tongue
Fundamentally, the Japanese are weary of people who are good talkers, equating this habit and demonstrations of such ability with unprincipled, untrustworthy behaviour.
While we can say there is also a similar attitude towards overly talkative people in the West as well, here in Japan, the negative response to people who talk way to much has a much more deeply rooted culture connotation, and far more important in the overall scheme of things even up until this very day.
Distrust and dislike of verbosity in Japan has its origins in Buddhism and Confucianism, both of which calls for a quiet, contemplative demeanour and in the cultural expectation of ones own actions which speak much louder than words.
Historically in Japan, self restraint in expression was equated with cultural enlightenment, morality and wisdom, and a great deal of all communication amongst the Japanese was silent, which is a fundamental function of their cultural intuition.
I wrote a blog post concerning this silent communication amongst the Japanese which is know as i shin den shin, or Japanese telepathy and you can see the link for that particular blog post in the show notes .
You could say the importance of this verbal restraint is actually rooted in the very nature of Japanese innate etiquette itself.
In formal situations, for example in encounters with superiors, the authorities, and government and court officials, including samurai warriors, speech standards were especially strict, and the consequence of not adhering to them precisely would and could literally be fatal.
Because of this obsessive concern with the precise protocol in verbal communication, it became characteristic of the Japanese to say as little as possible in order to avoid ageashi, or being tripped up by ones own tongue.
Occasions when “slips of the tongue” or in Japanese age ashi wo toru could have serious, or even fatal consequences were so common in Japanese life, that avoiding them was a never ending challenge.
So in essence, verbosity in itself was dangerous, because the more a person talked, the more likely it was that one might make some kind of error in the choice of vocabulary, use the wrong tone of voice, or try the patience of the listener – all of which could trigger a negative reaction from the other party.
Even to this very day in Japan, committing age ashi is still considered to be a serious breach of etiquette, and with some exceptions people still react negatively to big talkers-including the blathering all-talk no-action politicians, in which there are a plethora of here in Japan.
The Japanese are still a long way from accepting and being comfortable with the fast talking, free-for-all kind of verbal behaviour that is so common amongst Americans and in other Western societies indeed.
This kind of talkative behaviour is one of the most serious handicaps adversely affecting the ability of Westerners to communicate effectively with the Japanese.
It is an ironic cultural twist that while the Japanese preferred verbal restrain and periods of silence, Americans regard this as a weakness, and periods of silence as a vacuum that must be filled up.
I have experienced this myself first hand while interpreting in a negations between a major American airline and a Japanese hotel chain. You could see the Americans squirming as the Japanese side suck air through their teeth while nodding their head solemnly, with what can only be describes as a pokerface.
In these business settings, you can rest assure the Japanese negotiators almost always take for granted that the Westerners will commit age ashi during the course of meetings because of their propensity to talk, and the Japanese encourage this by keeping quiet most of the time.
The Japanese custom of modesty in speech contributes even more to the American habit of talking too much, and this factor becomes even more significant and uncomfortable, when it is combined with the Japanese custom of deliberately interspersing time gaps into their negotiation sessions, which seems like an eternity to the “get er dun now” attitude of our American counterparts.
Often times, these gap of silence, in what is know as ma, devolves into preachy-like lecturing on the American side just to, you know “keep things moving along”.
Now there’s nothing malicious about these intervals of silence.
Formal encounters amongst the Japanese themselves have always demanded extraordinary attention and concentration and were therefore significantly stressful.
It became customary to insert such breaks into these formal situations so the participants could relax for just a short while.
All too often, inexperienced American negotiators presume they are not getting through to the Japanese; this is where they then panic and doubled down on their verbal effort in order to break down what they perceived as some kind of a barrier.
Now, I am sure we all have had experiences with brash loudmouths, and Japan is not absent of these types of fools, however, fundamentally reticence in speech and indeed the demeanour of the Japanese is one of the most important core tenents of the Japanese Way.
Find out more about the way the Japanese use telepathy to communicate here.