Meaning and saying

Thinking about my new blogging ventures, I realised that part of what has held me back from having a blog for such a long time has been the following: I no longer have the capacity to stand on a soap box.

Being South African, intelligent, an IR student, a debater and associating with the people I did back then, I used to be a lot easier about just saying my piece. You can’t grow up in South Africa without believing you have the god-given right to express your opinion loudly and proudly. The next guy has his opinion too, of course – but you’re not obliged to alter yours in any way. As a kid I remember being dead impressed by the words of a famous Radio 702 talk show host, John Burke – “I may have changed my opinion,” he announced one morning, “but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m right.”

And then I moved to Japan, where on the whole people tend to be a lot less vociferous about expressing their opinions – or at least disagreeing with the opinions of others. It makes for peaceful living, but it’s also frustrating when you discover that someone was of an entirely different opinion to what you’d assumed. Many a Western visitor to Japan has exclaimed in exasperation, “But why didn’t they just say so?”

What lies behind this is essentially a well-developed sense of self-censorship. Japan has an unspoken and yet rigid social code of honne and tatemae – literally, what you really believe and desire, and the façade you present to the world. Pretty much every Japanese drama – on TV or in real life – contains some aspect of the conflict between the way someone is obliged to act, and what they really want to do or say. The desire to be non-confrontational, to not be disappointed, means that so much goes unsaid. I love you. I hate this job. You’re being prejudiced. Your outfit is threatening to give me an epileptic seizure.

There’s a part of me that feels like this is somehow dishonest – and then the panicked thought, what if you went through life never revealing your true self? It’s not an entirely unheard-of phenomenon even in the more liberal Western societies – how many times have you thought, I never said anything because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, because I didn’t want to hurt you. But in Japan, that barrier is so much more rigid and intensely felt. Anyone older than a middle schooler swiftly learns to be careful, to tailor their words to their audience.

It’s not always a good thing – a society that discourages thoughtless communication also tends to produce individuals who are very thin-skinned. A student who stands up and gives an answer is often devastated if it’s incorrect. There’s no such thing as teasing, or even gentle sarcasm, unless you know the person really well. On the flip side, you might have to frown on something that you secretly think isn’t that big a deal. It’s terribly frustrating in some ways, and leads to a lot of self-censorship. This leads to a lot of meaningless ping-pong conversations – you posit something highly neutral, then I agree with it, then you introduce a variation, then I agree with it, then I suggest a mild exception and you agree… and so it goes on.

And then I find myself wondering – what’s the difference between just being diplomatic and self-censorship? (God forbid everyone went through daily life just blurting everything that came to mind!) I can’t help but recall an acquaintance of my mum’s. Everyone found her a little unsettling – she was a short woman with iron grey hair, a penetrating stare and the most unnerving habit of saying things that made you want to snap, “None of your business!” because the things she said were, well, quite often perceptive and accurate (not something you want when you’re a teenager…) “She’s too honest about everything,” someone said once, and everyone agreed.

These days though, I find myself remembering her with fondness. Maybe it’s because I find myself surrounded by people who have a hard time letting their true feelings be known. Sometimes, maybe you just have to get on the soapbox or pick up the verbal poking stick and try to open some kind of dialogue.

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One thought on “Meaning and saying

  1. Good to see you writing! And a good topic for your first post, something I’ve mused over many a time.

    I hate to say something as uninspired as “balance is the key” but it kinda is. At least partially. Balance between expressing your opinions and confronting issues but also knowing when and where to do so. It’s not like we can put a single, all-purpose approach on the issue and say “right, this works.” Life is like a tightrope and as the rope flexes and strains so must we adjust our balance accordingly. Just taking a single, inflexible approach, you’re gonna fall, sooner or later

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