Listen Up! Honne Messages in Public

So far we have discussed honne as communicated behind the scenes, in the uchi sphere. But honne is often expressed in public situations as well. Although this may seem surprising, think about the following: In a society where tatemae plays a prominent role, how can you effectively express negative feelings to another without doing damage to your relationships? Even inside uchi, members may be circumscribed in expressing honne that is critical or negative (as Janine’s case illustrates below). How can you convince others that you are sincere about what you are telling them–even if it is positive–and not simply being polite?

For all these situations there is still a ray of light. Another channel exists for communicating (and receiving) honne messages: indirect communication, or using others to facilitate honne communication in what would ordinarily be a tatemae situation. These situations are particularly valuable for newcomers since they are messages you CAN rely on. They are spoken from the heart, and can often tell you how you are really doing. How do you learn to tune in to the very messages that you really need to hear?

Uchi/soto distinctions are crucial to understanding how these messages work. Honne messages in public take place in soto (or guest) situations where two or more uchi members are relating to outsiders. Those with close ties to uchi, including newcomers, may be considered uchi members on this occasion, in contrast to the soto guests (See Module 9.1). An uchi member can speak honne but direct the message to the outsiders, even though it is meant for the other insider(s), who appear to be simply bystanders. The following clues should help you recognize honne messages in public: (1) The content of the message, which may communicate a problem, criticism, or a very personal message–none of which fits with a tatemae situation; (2) The reaction to the message, which is regarded as honne and responded to as such by the bystanders, rather than by the supposed recipients;  (3) The inebriated state of the speaker, since being drunk especially facilitates honne messages in public. See how these clues play out in the situations below.

1. The following cases show indirect communication being used to express positive emotions:

  • In front of Molly, the Otoosan is talking to distant guests about her, emphasizing the things she has done for him and how close he feels to her. Why does he tell these things about Molly to the guests?

  • The Otoosan is quite drunk by the time he begins talking about Molly. How does the otoosan being drunk influence his communication?

  • Why couldn’t the communications in either Molly or Theo’s cases have taken place just as effectively directly, and in private?

2. In the next two cases, indirect communication is being used to communicate negative emotions, or unpleasant messages.

  • Why couldn’t Janine’s Okaasan discuss the issues directly with the otoosan? (See 6.2 and 8.3 if you need to review this.)

  • Do you think the communication strategy Janine’s Okaasan used was effective? Did she accomplish what she wanted to?

  • Why did Elena’s Okaasan choose to communicate with Elena via a neighbor? What was she trying to avoid by doing that?

3. Putting things together . . . the use of “others” to facilitate communication:

  • Listen up! An uchi member can speak honne but direct the message to the outsiders, even though it is meant for the other insider(s), who appear to be simply bystanders.

  • In fact, anything that is said about you to others when you are present may actually be an indirect message intended for you! You might be offended by this kind of communication, feeling that you are being treated as if you aren’t present, or you may “tune out” the conversation as irrelevant because the situation is tatemae. Yet a tatemae situation can be a goldmine for honne information.

  • Indirect communication is a common channel for conveying honne messages that might be embarrassing or stressful if communicated directly. As a result, praise, appreciation, criticism, and requests are often communicated indirectly by making use of public situations or outsiders.

Main Takeaway:

Be alert! Things said about you in public situations, conversations with visitors or outsiders, third party messages, and (especially) drunken comments should never be discounted. Put these onto your radar screen precisely because indirect messages can be taken seriously as honne.

Molly 6: I'm Otoosan's "American Daughter"

Saturday night okaasan told me that in November, one of otoosan’s subordinates from the company is getting married, and that she and otoosan are going to be their formal go-betweens at the wedding ceremony. Sunday afternoon, they would be coming over to the house for lunch. Well, when I woke up on Sunday morning and went downstairs, there was an entire table covered with food that looked a little more “special” than that we normally ate. I walked into the tatami room (which as far as I had known was only used as okaasan‘s art studio) and saw the table set with really nice dishes. In addition, extra cushy zabuton (cushions) had been set out. When I saw two pairs of really nice slippers out by the stairs, I realized that this was something special.

When the couple came in, they all sat down and basically just talked for eight hours. After about two hours I went upstairs to do some homework. When I came back downstairs a few hours later, otoosan was completely wasted! His communication inhibitions had clearly gone out the window. When I came in he immediately launched into explaining to the couple the story of how when okaasan wasn’t home (when she was working at the hospital) I prepared his dinner for him. He went on about what a good human being (ii hito) I was, and then said that I was his “American daughter”, and that he loved me just like he loved his real children. I didn’t know how much of it was the sake, but I was really touched and happy when he said that. I guess after about a month of living with the Saitos, it’s really like a family. I’d like to think that they no longer treat me as a guest, although I’m sure in some respects, that’s not really the case.

Rosa 2: How Did I Manage to Offend Everybody?

When I came to my host family in Sept. my host mother introduced me to her friend Mira, and I began teaching English to her. Mira and I had conversations about all kinds of things, and through this Mira also became my friend. During the middle of the semester, my sister’s first baby was born, and I was to be the godmother. I decided to return to Los Angeles for the baptism, because being a godmother is really important in my family’s culture.

I was only going to be gone for 5 days, but I had so many gifts to bring with me that my luggage got pretty unwieldy. From the train station I could do fine, no problem, because there are carts. But my host family lives quite far from the train station, and I had too much luggage to make it onto the bus. My host mother runs a small store located in front of the house, and I unfortunately packed at the last minute. When I found I had too much stuff for the bus, I didn’t want to bother her while she was working. Instead I just called Mira and asked her if she would do me a big favor and drive me to the train station, since okaasan was working. Mira came by right away with the car.

But when Mira came, my host mother wouldn’t let her drive me to the train station. Instead she closed the store for the time it took and drove me herself to the station. I felt pretty terrible about this, because I was trying not to inconvenience okaasan . But somehow I think I managed to inconvenience everybody. To this day I don’t really understand why Mira couldn’t drive me to the train station.

Module 9.4
Listen Up! Honne Messages in Public
Comments (1)

A crucial component in Molly’s case is that the Otoosan is drunk (and has now been with his guests for about eight hours). When Molly comes back into the room Otoosan tells his guests how Molly has helped in preparing his dinner when Okaasan was at work, and then says that she is his “American daughter” whom he loves like his own children. Molly realizes that Otoosan is communicating honne, and is “very touched”. While she hasn’t been in her homestay very long, (and does’t know how literally to take his message), her case in the Gallery (7.1) shows that her family does like her, and that she is doing very well in her homestay).

Theo’s case illustrates the difficulty a newcomer has conveying appreciation and gratitude “from the heart” to a relative in Japan. Theo feels he and his wife have imposed upon this relative, but his attempts at trying to apologize and thank her directly only create awkwardness. Theo then invites her and two of her close friends (whom he doesn’t know) to a Noh performance, and after that, to dinner. At the restaurant Theo talks directly to his aunt’s friends, giving them the message of how grateful he is to Aiko, how much she had done for his family, and how little they had been able to reciprocate. Aiko’s response shows that she took the message as a honne message meant for her, since she broke down in tears and began to sob openly. Clearly Theo has repaired any gap between them. But it seemed to him that this honne communication had been effective because it was made in public: “I felt I could express my feelings from my heart in a way that was impossible even if I was alone with her. . . It was like my words didn’t mean much, to Aiko or even to myself, until they came out in front of these people I hardly knew.” This is worth thinking about.

Janine 4: Okaasan Speaks Out: Sweet Revenge

During my second extended homestay with the Shinodas in the mountain village, I found it necessary to get a car for transportation, and at this point the otoosan finally decided to get his driver’s license, too. He was now 55, and had always driven a motor scooter, but by this time nearly everyone in the area was driving a car. While otoosan was studying for his license virtually no other topic of conversation was heard in the house. All of us sat in the kotatsu, watching in numbing boredom as he traced and retraced practice routes on a map of his practice course at the driving school, endlessly, day after day, week after week. Clearly things had gotten out of hand.

When the otoosan finally got his license, and with it, a car, I fervently hoped that the subject of driving would cease to be the focus of the entire household. But it was not to be. Shortly after he started driving the otoosan hit a post and knocked the side mirror off his car. Then, while it was in the garage being fixed, unbeknownst to me, he borrowed my car. While driving the same route, he hit another post and knocked the mirror off my car. I was away at the time and when I returned to the house, the otoosan muttered cryptically that he had done something in driving my car and had had to buy another mirror for it. And he repeatedly pointed out that this had cost 1500 yen (about $5.00 at that time).

For the okaasan this was simply too much, and speaking privately to me in the kitchen, she commented on the otoosan’s behavior: “I can’t believe how puffed up and angry he is, even though he did this whole thing himself. To absolutely never admit that he’s the one who’s wrong and never to apologize even in the tiniest way—this is very strange behavior! It was clear that she opposed the otoosan on this issue, but it was also clear that she could not express her opposition directly to the otoosan —at least not in the way she had to me. (See Module 6.1)

Two weeks later the yooshi (adopted husband) from next door came over in the evening to escape from a difficult domestic situation—namely, his wife. He was a frequent visitor, and he and the otoosan would often use the occasion to drink sake together. This time the yooshi —named Ishihara—was, as usual, complaining about his wife’s nagging, and the otoosan was going on, as usual, about his driving lessons. Someone mentioned that I had a driver’s license, and the otoosan responded that this was only an international driver’s license and that I was really a bad driver “Heta na unten desu yo.”

Then the okaasan entered the conversation. Only now she was airing her complaints with the otoosan in an absolutely direct manner, just as she had spoken to me in the kitchen, and the list was even longer now than it had been two weeks ago. She began by stating that the otoosan was very egocentered (wagamama) and thought only about himself: “Jibun no koto kiri kangaeru hito.” At this point I could not resist adding that it was strange how he smashed up my mirror and then called me a bad driver. “It certainly is,” the okaasan agreed.

The okaasan proceeded on in great detail. No matter what happened, she said, the otoosan would absolutely never admit he was in the wrong—and that is the problem! She thought he should certainly have apologized when he drove my car into a post, but instead he got uppity and became angry at what he himself had done.

I realized that the forthright manner of the okaasan’s complaints about the otoosan was in part because she could present them in the guise of “telling it to the yooshi ” from next door. In front of a soto person, the otoosan could not respond to the okaasan in the same manner she spoke about him (that is, critically), for it was no longer the same kind of communication situation. Before the arrival of the yooshi the okaasan had had to indulge the otoosan ; now they were both uchi , indulging a soto guest. And to make the guest, who is escaping a difficult domestic situation, feel more comfortable, the okaasan was giving him an earful about the difficult domestic situation in her own household. The otoosan now had to maintain a joking good humor, in sympathy with his wife’s efforts—for he was indulging the guest now too. But the okaasan had made her point. And her strategy was surprisingly effective; it brought an abrupt end to the otoosan’s discussions of his driving, and complaints about the accident.

Elena 1: Hearing the Truth from a Stranger

I came to Japan several times with my family while I was growing up, and each time I came I did a homestay. When I was on a homestay in junior high school I had a male high school student as a Japanese tutor, who helped me with my Japanese, and he came to my room to do this. My host okaasan never said anything to me about this, but after awhile a friend of the okaasan’s told me that I should study with the tutor in the main room (chanoma) where all the family gathered, rather than in my room. Since this woman was someone I hardly knew her words came as a total shock to me, and I wondered why the okaasan hadn’t told me directly. Since I was able to talk about all kinds of things in simple Japanese with the okaasan while I helped her with dinner preparations each night, I didn’t think the problem here was one of language difficulty. In this situation in my own country a student would use her room to study with a tutor, to avoid inconveniencing everyone else in the family, and I did this because I was thinking of the convenience of the family. That this created a bad result and that the family didn’t tell me about it directly was a shock that I remember well even now.

Module 9.4
Listen Up! Honne Messages in Public
Comments (2)

Okaasan speaks out: Sweet Revenge shows a very adept use of public honne by a person whose uchi status doesn’t allow her to criticize her husband directly. She manages to get her message across by addressing a guest—a neighbor who is a hen-pecked adopted husband, and who has come next door to escape his nagging wife. Okaasan uses the adopted husband’s visit to air her grievances with her own husband—all under the guise of commiserating with the adopted husband by using her own situation (of having to put up with Otoosan’s arrogant and selfish behavior) as an example. The positions of Okaasan and the adopted husband closely resemble one another since he is like a wife, who has married into the household, and ends up being dominated by his wife (in th same way that Okaasan has to defer to her husband). Okaasan is so adept at managing her honne communication that she also manages to communicate a message of support to the guest. But the real message here is to the Otoosan, who can’t respond to her accusations in the guest situation. Yet he clearly got the message because the behavior that she complained about came to an abrupt stop.

Elena’s case shows a different way of attempting indirect honne communication. Elena has offended her host family by inviting her male Japanese tutor to her room, instead of meeting with him in the common uchi household space. But instead of Okaasan telling Elena about this problem directly, she asks her close friend whom Elena knew only slightly (and was therefore soto), to convey the honne message that she shouldn’t study with her tutor in her room. Here Okaasan makes the message indirect by removing herself as the speaker, and substituting her friend to carry the message instead. This is like the complaint the homestay coordinator passed on to Peter from his host family about his stereo being too loud. Elena was shocked at receiving this honne message from a stranger, and didn’t understand why Okaasan hadn’t told her herself. Had Okaasan’s friend been a closer friend to Elena as well, this indirect communication might have been less of a shock to her.   

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