Our Japanese focus continues with a guest post from Jag Bhalla, author of I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears from National Geographic Books, featuring 1,000 intriguing and amusing expressions from around the world, plus related light-hearted essays on linguistics, anthropology, psychology and neuroscience. The book is illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits.
In Japan it’s not what you say; it’s also very much the way that you say it (or not) that matters. The Japanese prefer to trust haragei, which means “visceral, indirect, largely non-verbal communication.” As Howard Reingold explains in his excellent book They Have a Word For It, in Japan:
Direct verbal communication the way we use it in the West is generally shunned. Nuances, silences, gestures, facial expression are much more important. … One Japanese can understand what another is trying to communicate by closely observing posture, facial expressions, the length and timing of silences, and the various ‘meaningless’ sounds uttered by the other person.
Their greater reliance on non-verbal expressions also makes it into the language they express verbally. For example the expression to “lower the outside corners of your eyes” means to be pleased. For us that doesn’t seem to make sense. But it turns out that smile-ologists confirm the wisdom encoded in that turn of phrase. The only reliable indicator (i.e. non fake-able sign) that a smile is genuine (called a Duchene smile) is the involuntary (can’t be controlled consciously) contraction of muscles around the eyes, causing laugh lines and pulling down the lateral border of the eyebrow. Laugh lines on their own can be caused by moving cheek muscles, which can be consciously controlled and hence can be faked (as when we force a smile, also known as a Pan Am smile). The Japanese language makes explicit this fact that’s been hidden in plain sight. And that most of us, despite having seen countless smiles, are totally unaware of.
The literal meaning of haragei is “belly sensitivity” and it turns out that Japanese bellies are more significant than ours. The Japanese think of the stomach area as the place where their true feelings and intentions lie. References to similar sentiments survive in English, for example in phrases like gut feeling and gut instinct. However while we downplay our intestinal intelligence, the Japanese are far more interested in gut reading. And it’s not just their own; they’re interested in reading the state of the intestines of others. When the Japanese say “your belly is transparent,” it means that you are not hiding anything, your true intentions are clear. Hence when the Japanese say “there is something in their bellies,” they don’t mean they have eaten; they mean they have something up their sleeve. Where we set our minds (or hearts) on something, an equally resolute Japanese would “tighten his belly.” If we don’t achieve what we had set our hearts on, we might be broken-hearted, whereas, a similarly afflicted Japanese’s “intestines are torn.” Being heartbroken we might need to unburden ourselves, whereas a Japanese would “open up his liver and gall.” When we finally learn the inevitable lessons of disappointment by taking something to heart, the Japanese more alarmingly “chisel it into their livers”!
This post is based on material from I’m not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and is used here with permission.Email this Post