Friday, April 24, 2015
Do Foreigners make more Gestures?
It is a common perception in Japan that non Japanese make more and more exaggerated gestures while talk to each other than Japanese. This excerpt from a comic (Oguri, 2010, p.8) on the differences between a Japanese woman and her foreign husband includes the copy "Well of course foreigners have much more exaggerated gestures, as we all know."
On the other hand, Western perception of Japanese gestures is mixed. On the one hand there is a perception that the Japanese wear for instance a "mask of inscrutability" and are covered "beneath courteous reserve" (Craigie, 2004, p. 172). In Japan "people have to suppress their true feelings practically all the time" (Rice, 2004, p144).
At the other extreme, caricatures of Japanese such as in the Directors Cut of Grand Blue where a Japanese diving coach works his diver so hard the later feints, or Isuro "Kamikazi" Tanaka played by Takaaki Ishibashi "who helps excite the team" with his frantic overwrought gestures in Major League 2. Japanese gestures can appear exaggerated to Westerners too. Part of the reason for both Japanese and Westerners thinking that the other's gestures are exagerrated is likely due to the fact that the gestures themselves are different, and phenomena to which one is not accustomed stand out.
Surprising though it may seem to Japanese, research on nodding beat gestures (Maynard, 1987: see also Kita, 2009) generated during speech production, showed that Japanese approximately four times more nods, once ever 5.57 seconds whereas Americans nod only every 22.5 seconds (informal study, Maynard, 1987, p602, note 4). Both Japanese and Americans nod at the beats, and baton touch turn-taking position. But Japanese nod, not only at these times and in the back channel, but also in the middle of their own statements.
So who does make more gestures. A quick comparison of a couple of wedding speakers in Japanese in English on Youtube demonstrates the source of this difference. Americans wave their hands more and use obvious exaggerated, semi iconic facial gestures (like those caricatured above) more liberally but Japanese use a great deal of nodding and bowing to emphasise what their are saying, demonstrate sincerity and as beats. No wonder Japanese speakers get "shoulder ache" (katakori). Conclusive research on the relative importance of gesture remains to be done.
The Japanese, like Italians, also have a wide lexicon of iconic gestures that can be used in place of speech. And as always, I argue that Japan is NOT a high context culture (Hall, 1966; Honna, 1988: see Tsuda, 1992) but that visual communication is the central media and in Japan language is considered to be part of the context. This means that language will often be used to express flattery and other pleasantries (tatemae, such saying "I'll think about it") in stead of "no". Whereas the true meaning (honne) is expressed in the face, posture, pause and expression. Returning to Major League 2, for all his exaggeration, famed Japanese comedian Takaaki' Ishibashi's caricature of the Japanese is faithful. His expressions move from one form to the next like a Kabuki actor, or Kyari Pamyu Pamyu, nothing is left to chance, there is in Barthes' words "perfect domination of the codes" (1989, p.10)
The closest that a Western scholar gets to recognising that gesture and the non-verbal could be central to self and meaning in Japan is Roland Barthes' "Empire of Signs" (1983) (based in part on the observations of Maurice Pinguet).
Now it happens that in this country (Japan) the empire of signifiers is so immense, so in excess of speech, that the exchange of signs retains of a fascinating richness, mobility, and subtlety, despite the opacity of the language, sometimes even as a consequence of that opacity. The reason for this is that in Japan the body exists, acts, shows itself, give itself, without hysteria, without narcissism, but according to a pure - though subtly discontinuous - erotic project. It is not the voice (with which we identify the "rights" of the person) which communicates (communicates what? our-necessarily beautiful-soul? our sincerity? our prestige?) but the whole, body (eyes, smile, hair, gestures, clothing) which sustains with you a son of babble that the perfect domination of the codes strips of all regressive, infantile character. To make a date (by gestures, drawings on paper, proper names) may take an hour, but during that hour, fur a message which would. be abolished in an instant if it were to be spoken (simultaneously quite essential and quite insignificant), it is the other's entire body which has been known, savoured, received, and which has displayed (to no real purpose) its own narrative, its own text. (Barthes, 1983, p.10)
Barthes comes close. He can't help making a "text" of the Japanese body, the only way that he can admit it has meaning since in his hierarchy only language can truly mean (see Barthes, diagram p. 113).
Barthes famously claims that "the centre (of Japan, the Japanese subject) is empty," and in the above passage that its communication has "no real purpose," but at the same time Japan has forced him to question the purpose of his own vocalisations. And he is wrong that the body talk is erotic. He is talking to and about himself. Japanese signs and selves are cute. The relative absence of words, and the erotic beguiled him to conclude that the centre of Japan is empty. The self and centre of Japan does not have or needs words, but is is far from empty rather visual and raging, fury Kyari Pamyu Pamyu barfing eyeballs full.
Finally, while Merbihain's 93% (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) has been rejected even by Mehrabian (Mehrabian, 1995: see Lapakko, 1997) it is clear that non-verbal communication is extremely important. Bearing this in mind the pressing question for me is how Hall (1976) had the gall (!) to claim that those cultures that do not see language as central to human communication are "high context" at all? That nonverbal communication is contextual assumes that language is central, privileged when in fact in Japan, it is often the reverse.
Taking one example, Hall claims that in Japan people expect more of others.
"It is very seldom in Japan that someone will correct you or explain things to you. You are supposed to know and they get quite upset when you don’t. ... People raised in high context cultures expect more of others than to the participants in low-context systems. When talking about something that they have on their minds, a high context individual will expect his interlocutor to know what is bothering him, so that he doesn't have to be specific." (Hall, 1976, p98)
Do Westerners really expect less of others?
I find that in interaction with Japanese I often expect them to have heard my words, the generalities that I have stated, and to apply them across multiple situations. I expect this of them. When I bothered about some situation where previously expressed verbal wishes and requirements are not being met, I expect others to know and get quite upset (like a arrogant fool) when they don't. Americans expect others to understand their generalities - their linguistic expressions - as Japanese expect others to look, mirror and behave appropriate to the situation. This is due to the fact that the central mode of meaning is different not because members of either culture place greater or lesser expectations upon others.
Dumping the hierarchy of the old Western text/context word/world dualism will help us to understand the Japanese and ourselves.
Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Barthes, R. (1983). Empire of Signs. (R. Howard, Trans.). Hill and Wang.
Craigie, R. (2004). Behind the Japanese Mask: A British Ambassador in Japan, 1937-1942. Routledge.
Hall, E. T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Anchor Press.
Kita, S. (2009). Cross-cultural variation of speech-accompanying gesture: A review. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(2), 145–167. doi.org/10.1080/01690960802586188
Knapp, M., Hall, J., & Horgan, T. (2013). Nonverbal Communication in Human Interaction. Cengage Learning.
Lapakko, D. (1997). Three cheers for language: A closer examination of a widely cited study of nonverbal communication. Communication Education, 46(1), 63–67. Retrieved from www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03634529709379073
Maynard, S. K. (1987). Interactional functions of a nonverbal sign Head movement in japanese dyadic casual conversation. Journal of Pragmatics, 11(5), 589–606. doi.org/10.1016/0378-2166(87)90181-0
Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31(3), 248. Retrieved from psycnet.apa.org/journals/ccp/31/3/248/
Oguri, S. (2010). Dārin wa gaikokujin.
Rice, J. (2004). Behind the Japanese mask--: how to understand the Japanese culture-- and work successfully with it. Oxford: HowToBooks.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.