Imagine you have been asked a difficult question. Maybe it’s difficult because you don’t know a correct answer (and you think you should). Maybe it’s difficult because you will either make yourself look bad or hurt someone by telling the truth. For example,

‘What’s the value of X in this question?’

Or, ‘How do you think he/she felt when you said that?’

Do you:

A. Admit the truth (for a maths problem, ‘I don’t know’?*)

B. Lie/make it up?

C. Steal the answer from someone else (with or without their consent)?

D. Say nothing?

The answer for me varies, depending on the situation. If I’m in class and I don’t know the answer, I’d choose A. If it’s a speaking or writing test, B: I’d say something, lie, waffle on about something and try to cover up the fact that I don’t know. I can’t think of a situation where I’ve copied from someone else – although I am aware of it as a possibility and it has occurred to me as an option in various written exams. I think most of the time, whether it’s an academic question or a personal question troubling me, I’d choose A or B. C doesn’t really come into it.

Blanking out, either rabbit-in-headlights style or I’ll-just-look-down-at-my-textbook-now style, is an approach I have discovered in Japan. I don’t mean that people don’t ignore each other in Australia; they definitely do. This silence I’m talking about is somehow a different kind.

I write this in the context of having recently done a ‘conversation test’ with 120 Japanese students. Students were supposed to try to keep a conversation going by continuing to talk after answering a question, and then asking a question of their own, to whose answer they could say stuff like ‘Wow,’ ‘Really?’ or ‘Oh, I see.’ So said conversation was supposed to go like this (Student’s lines are as suggested by the Japanese Teacher of English):

BJ (that’s me): Good morning/afternoon, Student.

S: Good morning, BJ.

BJ: How are you today?

S: I’m fine, thank you, and you?

BJ: I’m great, thank you. I have a question for you…

(Here I got to ask a random question, painstakingly crafted out of the language covered in class.)

BJ: How many brothers and sisters do you have?

(Here the student should answer the question and then give some more information, as in a real conversation.)

S: I have one sister. She likes volleyball.

BJ: Oh, that’s nice.

S: Do you like volleyball?

BJ: Yes, but I can’t play volleyball very well.

S: Oh, I see.

BJ: OK, thank you! You may go back.

S: Thank you very much! See you.

Timer: *beep beep beep beep*

Students got more marks if they used ‘reactions’ for communicating, like ‘Pardon?’ or ‘Wow’ and had good manners and made eye contact. They also got marks for answering the question and talking beyond that.

For many reasons, including lack of conversation practice, stage fright, and especially lack of conversation practice using whatever particular words I chose, some students didn’t understand their question. Some did well here by asking, ‘Pardon?’ or repeating part of the question they didn’t understand, so I could rephrase it for them. Some bombed spectacularly in their answers:

BJ: What is your favourite food?

S: Yes, I do.

…and some echoed back at me:

BJ: What do you do after school?

S:  After school?

But a few just stared at me or into space.

BJ: How are you?

S: I’m cold, thank you. How are you?

BJ: Good, thanks. Now, I have a question. What do you usually have for breakfast?

S: … 😐 …

(45 seconds later) *beep beep beep*

What do you make of this? Aside from ‘I’m cold, thank you,’ that is. They get taught to say thank you when someone asks how they are. As asking people how they are isn’t really an everyday thing in Japanese culture, it can be surprisingly tricky to get the hang of it. I have been trying to train this year’s batch of kids not to say ‘fine’ because of its sociolinguistic connotations, you know, how young people these days don’t actually say ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’

But what do you think of the silence?

It’s really, really foreign to me, and though I understand that in this case, they are probably just sitting there waiting for their time to run out because they decided before walking in that they were going to fail, when I’m in the situation with a kid staring at me defiantly, resignedly, miserably, however they’re doing it as the clock ticks, it feels strange. Wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable in this situation?

Sometimes the expression looks a bit like this. Image: this movie

Sometimes the expression looks a bit like this. If you’re not familiar with anime, the drop of sweat is a sign of feeling awkward/under pressure. Image: this movie

There are a couple of reasons I can identify for this discomfiture. One seems obvious, right: it’s rude not to respond when someone is directly trying to interact with you. I’m pretty sure this is also true in Japan, at least in casual social interaction. The other reason I find this so weird is that these kids could get themselves points on the test by saying ‘Pardon?’ or ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know’ or ‘New question please?’ or anything at all, over the silence they choose. It may be that they’re frozen in terror and their mouth won’t work, but I think they’re just committed to failure. Which is sad, if they’ve given up on English already, at twelve years old, with another 5 years of it ahead of them at school.

At least as often as in speaking tests, I see students refuse to answer when directly asked a question by their teachers in class. This is quite painful to watch. It goes like this. By the way, teachers refer to students by their surnames in Japan.

Teacher: And what did the ghost say then? Mr Tanaka, please tell us.

Tanaka (standing): …

(10 seconds later) …

(40 students are still waiting) …

Teacher: Mr Tanaka?

Tanaka: …

Teacher: All right, if you don’t know, you can sit down. Would someone help here?

(Tanaka sits down shamefaced)

Why, Japanese people? What is so wrong with admitting you don’t know? I know there’s a horror about making a mistake, but is this really preferable? Is there some kind of honour in refusing to admit defeat? Even though you are holding the class up? And it’s clear you don’t know the answer anyway?

(bangs head on desk)

One of the strangest things about this silence is that it seems reserved for occasions when there’s some sort of social pressure. Nobody hesitates to say ‘Dunno’ if it’s a question like ‘Where’s my umbrella?’ And if there’s not so much tension in the room, plenty of students asked questions whose answers they don’t know will openly ask the person next to them, or look at that person’s worksheet, and then tell that answer to the classroom. Again, I probably mentioned in an education post that there doesn’t seem to be as much concern with understanding the ins and outs of what you’re doing here as there is with having the right answer, however you got it. Then again, there might be heaps of people in Australia who also don’t care about understanding how the language/formula/whatever works and just want the right answer so they can move on – I can only vouch for myself.

Outside of educational contexts, I understand silence in place of a verbal response a bit more, and the type you see outside educational contexts is what you’re more likely to see in anime or Japanese movies. It can be a bit like the kind of silence that you get from a dog who has chewed holes in your socks. I used this technique for the first time last year; not deliberately, but found myself at a loss for words which continued for several seconds and then realised, ‘Ah, maybe this is why people do that thing where they don’t say anything,’ and though it didn’t sit well with me, I still couldn’t find anything to say that wouldn’t do more damage than had already been done. So I didn’t say anything. It’s not that I wasn’t acknowledging the question – there was just no adequate way to respond.

It’s not always from shame, but often something like shame, I think. Surprise or shock, or some kind of embarrassment can bring it about too.

'Wow, your finger is so skinny! What size is it?' 'Hm, is he going to give me a ring?' Image: some women's magazine

Man: ‘Wow, your finger is so skinny! What size is it?’
Woman (thinking): Are you going to give me a ring?
Image: this women’s magazine

Maybe all of this is just me being really Western and placing too much importance on words. I think it’s not just Australia, but English-speaking culture – and French, from what I know – that likes things to be verbalised, especially when the thing asking for a reaction is verbal. Japanese culture kind of prides itself on ‘reading the atmosphere;’ there’s a phrase for not being able to do it: ‘K.Y.’ It stands for kuuki yomenai, 空気読めない、’can’t read air.’ It’s kind of like considering someone a bit clumsy/mentally or socially challenged, if they are KY, and most people are not considered KY. So maybe when someone doesn’t answer a question, you are supposed to read the air and know the answer from whether the person looks happy, embarrassed, confused, or whatever.

Would you find this kind of silence golden, awkward, or something else?

* I know question marks are supposed to go inside the inverted commas, but when the question is not part of what’s being said, it just doesn’t seem right to me. For any pedants reading. Yes, that may well be you, Bron, Evan, Margie, etc.

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