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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Channels of Communication in the US and Japan

Channels of Communication in the US and Japan
Originally uploaded by timtak
Red is language, blue is gesture.

The upper arrow represents Western language and gesture, with the upper part, language dominant, and the gesture supporting, emphasising and clarifying the linguistic meaning to convey the same message. Kendon (Gesture: Visual Action as Utterance) seems to espouse the view that gestures is generally, or universally bound up with language, as shown by the red-blue arrow.

The lower two arrows represent my feeling about Japanese gesture and language. In Japanese culture which emphasises the split between real meaning (honne本音) and social pleasantry (tatemae 建前), and has lots of essentially non-linguistic fawning (amae 甘え) and ESP (ishindenshi 以心伝心), or extolls people to "read the air (or non-verbal cues?)" (KY, kuuki wo yomu, kuuki ga yomenai空気を読め、空気が読めない), it seems to me that the two channels, gesture and language can mean different things (hence two arrows), the non-verbal blue arrow can be the true/real/main channel, and the language can be phatic or supurfluous and ignored (hence the bar).

I used to get the feeling (real or imagined) that Japanese verbal and non-verbal communication was tearing me in two like Bateson's schizo producing "double bind," because while I was attempting to attend to the verbal message. It felt like the sender was sending, and other recievers were reading, correctly, the sender's non-verbal communication that meant something else entirely.

I feel that Britons do the same thing, when they are being sarcastic. On the other hand Americans especially tend to tell it to you straight, "watch my lips", with the two channels bound together.

It could be argued however, that Japanese real meaning (honne 本音) is transmitted equally in the verbal linguistic domain, and it was just that I was not able to decode these linguistic meanings correctly. Such as when someone says "thats good" (ii desu いいです) or "I'll think about it" (kangaemasu 考えます) then even in the absence of non-verbal cues, a Japanese person would decode these statements correctly to mean "no thank you" and "the answer to your request is no" respectively. Thus Japanese verbal communication may be at one with Japanese non-verbal communication, but that one should interpret certain verbal statements in a non-literal way.

In a series of papers (e.g. this interesting study) by Sotaro Kita, a professor at Birmingham University compared for instance, Japanese, Turkish and English speakers use of gesture to describe a cartoon showing someone on a swing. Dr. Kita points out that there is no verb "to swing" in Japanese or Turkish. He further found that English speakers moved their hands in an arc when saying "swing" but that Japanese and Turks, when using more general movement verbs meaning "go", moved their hands in a linear movement. Hence the lack of a verb "to swing" (to move in an arc) results in a lack of a arc motion, swinging gestures. If it really were the case that Japanese gestures were independent of speech then one would expect them to move their hand in a swinging arc even though they do not have the verb to express that motion. Since this is not the case, it seems to suggest that Japanese gesture is closely integrated with Japanese speech rather than being an fully independent channel. While some information (notably the direction of swing) was gestured but not spoken, suggesting that gesture is to some extent independent of speech, this tendency to encode extra-verbal data in gesture was the same for all languages in the study.

Hence, the diagram above seems to be demostrably wrong.

But I still get the feeling that Western gesture is more integrated with speech, and that language and gesture form a single/merged channel to a greater extent than in Japan.

Stop press. I have just read the final line of the Sotaro Kita paper linked above, which ends "There are initial findings that speech gesture synchrony differs accorss different languages"
referencing in particular research by Dr. Kita's colleague, Asli Özyürek:
Özyürek (2001) What Do Speech-Gesture Mismatches Reveal
about Speech and Gesture Integration? A Comparison of English
and Turkish. I am guessing that Dr. Özyürek found greater integration in English than Turkish and that this patter would also be found between English and Japanese.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.