Have you ever heard of the terms „honne“ and „tatemae“?
You might be familiar with the social phenomenon existing in many Asian countries that it is extremely important to „keep your face“ when interacting with others. This includes being kind and modest and not showing extreme signs of affections, but it can also mean holding back your opinions and feelings in order to maintain group harmony. In Japan, „honne“ refers to your true feelings and beliefs while „tatemae“ is the face you show to the public. It is crucial to know about this before you come to Japan – also because it is sometimes very difficult to tell them both apart.
Keeping your face
If you are from a Western country, let’s the Europe or the United States, you are most likely rather free in what feelings you want to express to the people around you. Even though you would probably not cry in front of your colleagues or be overly affective in public, you can openly say when you don’t agree with something or think your best friend’s new haircut looks like a bird’s nest on a clown’s head. You might receive some angry looks or a few words of complaint, but that should be it (unless you really insult someone – that is not okay in any culture!). In Asia, and especially in countries like Japan, this is just not how the cookie crumbles (greetings to my high school English teacher here for this expression!). Everything is centred around group harmony and social life, so conformity and belonging to a social group has a high value in the life of many Japanese people. Drastically speaking, in order to not p*%$ anybody off or to avoid being abandoned by your peer group, you have to fit in. That also includes to some extent hiding your true feelings or thoughts in order to please others. Being nice here is key.
(Little historical background here: in ancient Japan, aristocrat ladies covered their faces with their fans when they were laughing to not show their feelings to others, especially not to men. Today, many Japanese girls still cover their mouths with their hands when laughing)
The struggle (for foreigners)
So, what’s the problem with being nice you ask? Nothing, of course. Being nice is great and many people should be nicer and more caring for others, I think.
However, as tatemae is so common among Japanese people it is often very difficult to get a Japanese to give you their true opinion or critical thoughts – especially, when you do not know each other so well or are asking about a controversial topic. Sometimes it is even hard to get them to make a concrete statement on random topics. You will most likely receive a rather vague answer, or even worse, an answer that the Japanese people think will please you. Also, a Japanese would never directly reject a favour or an invitation – that would just be too rude. Instead, we experienced it more than once that Japanese friends responded to our invitations with the famous „ちょっと“ („maybe“) – and never showed up. This can sometimes be annoying, especially to people from cultures like Germany (low-context culture member speaking here, people) where things are said more directly and exact. In Germany, there would be no problem in rejecting an invitation. Sure, you would maybe lie a bit out of politeness but if you wouldn’t be able to make it to that dinner that night, you could just say it. Not really in Japan, though.
So, when talking to Japanese it was sometimes very difficult for us to distinguish between honne and tatemae. Some features and patterns we recognised rather quickly but after 5 months in Japan I am still very often not sure if somebody is talking to me or helping me out because they feel somehow obligated to do so or because they really enjoy it. Also, as soon as you have learnt that everybody is required to be very polite, you often feel like a complete rude a** when talking to people (even worse: sending messages on WhatsApp/LINE or FB messenger – I still hate that). I find myself always being extra polite and modest, saying thank you and apologising all the time. The problem with that is just that it can also be considered rude when it is exaggerated *sigh*. So, how can you know how to behave? Well, the good news is that Japanese are really forgiving when it comes to foreigners not acting according to the unspoken rules of Japanese culture. I guess they have come to know that it is E-X-T-R-E-M-E-L-Y difficult for foreigners to know how to properly interact in Japanese society. Japanese have a lifetime learning these rules, so they will very likely forgive you for being unintentionally rude.
What to do
There is not really a recipe to understanding honne and tatemae other than watching and learning. You will be rude to Japanese people by accident, that is for sure. So, my only recommendation is to be aware of the fact that honne and tatemae exist. Do not take everything at its face value that is said to you. Try to be as polite as possible. Avoid too direct messages (e.g. I once told a Japanese friend I wanted to buy a specific router for wifi and sent her a picture of it on LINE – I still think she was rather shocked that I expressed a wish so concretely without asking her opinion first). After a good amount of time into our stay, we sometimes ask our Japanese friends to speak in „honne“ to us. We couldn’t be 100% sure of course; yet I did not have the feeling that I was lied to by them out of politeness. After some time, you will grow into what you can take seriously and what not (e.g. we found out rather quickly that the non official but way more adequate translation for „ちょっと“ is something between „I am truly sorry; I will not be able to make it but I don’t want to tell you so you won’t be sad now“ and „not under any circumstances would I do that EVER in my life“). Also, don’t be too serious about every single thing you say – it might turn into a kind of obsessive behaviour to over-think anything at least 3 times before you say it or send that message. As I said, Japanese are rather forgiving about that. After all, we all managed to not p%=* off anybody that much that they did not talk to us anymore. And if they get angry at you – yes, that happens – do use your common sense and apologise . Like you would do at home. After all, it’s just that easy.