Learning through our experiences – especially when they happen in cross-cultural contexts – can help us better understand ourselves and our own values.
"Authentic" is how most people want to be seen these days. Real. Genuine. Not fake. People in business, the arts, technology, education, both online and in person, try to promote themselves as authentic because, quite frankly, it sells.
But, the irony is, if we have to tell others we are "authentic," we lose the very characteristic itself!
So how do we pursue genuine authenticity in a world, especially online, promoting the curated self?
Heart on Sleeve … or Cold Wall?
This idea about what a person shows the outside world versus what that same person is like on the inside is not a new notion. Yet it bears a bit of attention in respect to cross and intercultural communications and, especially, how we live our lives and raise our children
All of us have met the person who wears his or her heart on their sleeve. Namely, someone who shares all within minutes of meeting him or her. Or, if you know that person already, each encounter is like going on a deep dive into their lives. Somehow, they feel compelled to share every detail.
Likewise, we know the person who is as cold and closed as a high wall (of ice!). They barely react or express any emotion. They leave you to wonder if they have any. And sometimes this even happens in what should be “close” relationships!
Both of these types of extremes – of outliers – exist in all cultures, even those tending towards one end of the spectrum or the others.
The Japanese concepts of Honne (本音) and Tatemae (建前)
These two fundamental building blocks of the Japanese psyche can roughly be translated as “the inner mind” (honne, 本音) and “the outer expression” (tatemae, 建前). If you look at the Chinese characters, they literally mean “original sound” and “built-up front.”
Honne and tatemae permeate Japanese culture, inform the Japanese mindset, and impact Japanese interactions with one another and with those outside their culture as well.
These two concepts are tied in with the value of maintaining “face” – i.e., making sure you make others, yourself and the situation all look good and not give any sense of disharmony. For harmony, wa (和), is of highest value in Japanese culture.
My Personal Encounter
During my first stretch living in Japan as a college exchange student, I came face-to-face with these fundamental building blocks of Japanese culture and society without even realizing it.
I was in a role as an “English expert” even though I was a mere 21 years old. (This was not uncommon in Japan back in the 1980’s and 90’s.) In fact, part of my assignment was to meet with medical doctors for English conversation and to correct their English submissions to major international medical conferences.
Of course, I would do so from a Western mindset. I would go over their papers thoroughly, marking what was wrong, finding new, more natural phrasing.
This was fine until I did this for one of the lead doctors at the medical center.
His English, though rather broken to my ears, was to be beyond reproach. Or, at least much reproach.
But I slashed and burned his paper as necessary. And then presented it back to him in a room full of many of his subordinates.
From his expression, the redness in his face and unusually stiff posture, I could tell within seconds I had overstepped my bounds.
Who was I, this brazen college student from the U.S., to question his ability?
Of course, he didn’t say anything. Just a quiet, awkward acceptance, a bowed head and a brusque arigatou gozaimasu (“Thank you” in Japanese)!
But I knew.
And I heard later from my sponsor, another one of the doctors, about this. He gave me a “lesson,” shall we say, in what is appropriate in such a situation, and what is not.
Learning from My Mistake
And I learned. In the future, I would not be so demonstrative with the red pen. I would learn to meet with him one-on-one to go over the paper. To not potentially embarrass him in front of his colleagues.
Tough lesson for a 21 year-old. But a good one. And I have applied this understanding to this day, not just in relating with Japanese, but also with many different people across cultures.
Honne and tatemae. Although expressions unique to Japanese culture, there are applications for them across cultures and in our personal and corporate lives.
Questions to Ask Ourselves
What do we show others? What do we want them to believe about us? If we do agree with the idea, actions speak louder than words, how aligned are our actions with the words we speak?
Just how important is authenticity to us? If it is of high value, how can we be deeply authentic while remaining respectful and, in some cases, appropriately reserved in different social situations? What about across cultures?
These are but a few of the questions that come to mind as I consider honne and tatemae in light of the challenges of living in this world today.
What are your thoughts regarding the gap between the "original sound" and the "built-up wall" metaphor?
Image credit: Author's photo
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