Communication Styles: East vs West

Although currently there are more than six thousand cultures in the world,1 several historians and anthropologists believed that cultures can be classified into just a few groups.

Toynbee,2 a British historian, identified twenty-three different cultural segments in his attempt to write a world history. He indicated that in the twentieth century there had been actually four major cultural groups: Islamic, Hindu, Far Eastern (Chinese-Japanese-Korean), and Western (European and North American, Orthodox-Russian, and Orthodox Byzantine).

The anthropologist Northrop3 further reduced these groups into Eastern civilizations/Western civilizations. Though he also talked about art- and passion-driven Spanish and Latin American cultures, his book’s main premise is that there are two distinctly different cultures in the world—aesthetic– and intuitionbased Eastern cultures (China and cultures influenced by Confucianism and Taoism) and logic-, theory-, and abstraction-based Western cultures.

Richard Nisbett4 adopted these views and conducted several experiments where Chinese, Japanese, and Korean subjects were compared with Western subjects, usually Americans. The results confirmed that Easterners and Westerners think differently; most Eastern subjects follow inductive logic and Western subjects follow deductive logic.

Nisbett also indicated that Easterners and Westerners communicate differently, because Westerners teach their kids during early childhood how to be independent and take an “agentic” approach, while kids who grow up in Eastern cultures practice how to be a “receiver” and pay attention to others’ needs and contextual cues.

This chapter focuses on Japanese culture, as an exemplar of Eastern culture and compares and contrasts it with a typical Western culture: American culture. 

Ruth Benedict, an American anthropologist, was one of the earliest to write about Japanese culture. In her 1946 book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, 5 she argued that the biggest underlying core value in Japan was shame, or the fear of public embarrassment. While in the United States people have their own moral standards and judge themselves based on those convictions, in Japan, shame is determined by the reactions of others.

Benedict argued that Japanese rely on external evaluations for self-respect, whereas Americans’ behavior is driven by personal conviction of sin. Besides shame, another notable concept that defines Japanese culture is amae, or dependence on others.

Takeo Doi, who was a psychoanalyst at the University of Tokyo, argued that in the Western world, children are not tolerated when they make a mistake or when they have weaknesses that they can improve. In Japan, however, children know that they can rely on their parents any time. This notion is also common among Japanese adults as businessmen in Japan have amae when conducting business, meaning they believe they can rely on the other party and they can get 100% support and assistance from the other side in any situation. 

In 1994, American communications professor William Gudykunst and his Japanese counterpart Tsukasa Nishida together wrote a book7 to explain American and Japanese ways of communication. As a foundation for their research, the authors argued that people constantly interpret messages they receive, but the interpretation process, mostly based on one’s culture and individual experiences, is what causes miscommunication.

Although some scholars8 may be against cultural determinism, arguing that there may be many other variables influencing how people communicate, Gudykunst posits that the uniqueness of Japanese communication can be mostly explained by the culture that has certain patterns such in-group/out-group boundaries, attitudes toward strangers, collectivistic values, and contextual awareness. 

Gudykunst and Nishida7 classified cross-cultural differences between Japan and the United States into two categories: language use and communication patterns.

In terms of language use, the authors referred to the differences between the Eastern, synthetic way thinking versus the Western, analytical way of thinking that shaped the English and Japanese languages. Japanese is indirect and predicate-centered; English is direct and actor-centered.

These differences also shape how people from these two nations manage topics and turn-taking in a conversation, persuade others, utilize silence in conversation, and interact with strangers.

The following table summarizes the authors’ arguments on language use in Japan and the United States:

Outcomes of using Japanese in a conversationOutcomes of using English in a conversation
In-group/Outgroup InteractionsHonorifics and different words used for outsiders. Honne (sincere) statements for close friends vs. tatemae (formal) statements in social situationsNo distinctive comm. between out-group members. Hiding true feelings is rare. Similar language is used for both friends and strangers.
Purpose of communicationInformation transmission (persuasiveness should always be avoided)Persuasion (language can be used to convince others; threats are not unusual)
Topic Management and Turn-takingTake turns evenly, use back-channeling frequentlyConversation starter makes most of the talk, a lot of questions and comments and less back-channeling
SilencePresence of seniors, outsiders, and persons of the opposite gender make it hard to talk in a group; silence has various meaningsWords are used to control any situation; silence is not liked 
Uncertainty ReductionFocus on nonverbal behavior, group membership, and background informationFocus on verbal communication and individual ideas and opinions
Self-disclosureLow self-disclosure. People may never reveal their true feelings (honne/tatemae) High disclosure. People ask many questions during initial conversations
Self-ConceptionInterdependent (e.g. we, I belong to… statements)Independent (e.g. me, I am … statements)
In-group/Outgroup BoundaryStrict (company, school, circle, family members are treated very differently)Loose (comm. with strangers does not have distinctive patterns)
Enryo (Conformity)High (self-deprecating statements are encouraged; harmony requires conformity) Low (independence is a virtue)
Table 12.1 The Differences in Language Use. Source: Gudykunst & Nishida (1994) 

When it comes to communication patterns, Gudykunst and Nishida talked about differing predispositions toward verbal and nonverbal communication in both countries, in addition to varying levels of privacy perceptions, conflict negotiations, and intimacy in social relationships.

The Japanese put more weight on nonverbal communication than do Americans, not only when communicating with friends and family but also during initial interactions with strangers. At the same time, Japanese express their emotions less intensely and tend not to show negative emotions. As a result, the Japanese communication style tends to be relaxed, slow-paced, and less verbal.

The following table summarizes Japanese and American communication styles: 

Japanese Communication StyleAmerican Communication Style
Nonverbal AspectsPositive emotions displayed more oftenNegative emotions (distress, anger) displayed more often; more eye contact and touching
Relationship DevelopmentAmae and sasshi are important in all stages, coworker and classmate relationships are more intimate than family relationshipsNo amae and sasshi in advanced relationships, coworker relationships are not necessarily seen intimate 
PrivacyUse passive-withdrawal when privacy is threatened Use active-aggressive strategies when privacy is threatened
PresenceRelaxed, passive criticism, expression of own limitations when admiring someone, no explanations after an apologyAttentive, active criticism, direct admiration, explain own behavior after an apology
Predispositions toward Verbal BehaviorLess assertive. Talking a lot is looked down upon, awase worldview. More assertive. People talk longer, erabi worldview
Emotional ExpressionNo actions needed to deal with emotional feelingEmotions are experienced for longer periods and with higher intensity, explicitly stated
Face Negotiation and Conflict ResolutionLosing face when disappointing group members; avoidance used to resolve conflictLosing face when personally failing in an individual activity; dominating and integrating negotiations
Ideal Communication PartnerA person who is not direct, not dominant in conversation, and tolerant of silence A person who is expressive and has a sense of humor but not self-conscious
Wa (Harmony)OmnipresentNot so important
Table 12.2 The Differences in Communication Style. Source: Gudykunst & Nishida (1994)

Self-Construal in Japan & the United States 

Perception of self or self-construal is known as the “constellation of thoughts, feelings, and actions concerning one’s relationship to others, and the self as distinct from others.9

Markus and Kitayama, who conducted a series of studies regarding the Japanese self, suggest that cultural values and individual socialization processes strongly impact how individuals relate to their societies. They suggest that Americans have an independent self that promotes individualism and uniqueness, while the Japanese have an interdependent self that necessitates fitting in and satisfying others’ needs.

As the authors state,

“The American examples stress attending to the self, the appreciation of one’s difference from others, and the importance of asserting the self. The Japanese examples emphasize attending to and fitting in with others and the importance of harmonious interdependence with them.”10

– Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). “Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation” (p. 224.)

In a separate study, the same researchers found that Japanese people are more likely to make selfdeprecating statements, frequently engage with selfcriticism, and are influenced more by their failures than their accomplishments compared to Americans.11

Beside the independent and the interdependent self, Dean Barnlund, another American researcher, introduced the concepts of public self and private self in Japan.12 He contended that Japan is a homogenous society and in order to preserve harmony, Japanese do not reveal much information about themselves. Even among close friends, it is rare that people share private information, because overall Japanese people have a negative view of disclosing the private self.

Although in the United States people also sometimes hide their true personalities or intentions, according to Barnlund the biggest difference is that in Japan the public self is narrow-ranged, meaning what is known about a person tells very little about him or her. What is more, the private self is usually shared nonverbally, meaning people have to intuit the inner world of those they converse with. That is very difficult unless both parties have an intimate relationship. 

Figure 12.1 Self-Construal in Japan & the United States. Source: Markus & Kitayama (1991, page 226)

Self-disclosure in Japan & the United States 

Self-disclosure refers to “the quantity (breadth) and quality (depth) of personal information that an individual provides to another.13 Human relationships usually develop based on information disclosure; the more information is shared, the more intimacy there tends to be.14

The process of self-disclosure tends to be reciprocal (if A discloses two pieces information, B is expected to disclose two pieces of information), and a rewarding experience because self-disclosure increases trust and liking.14

Although in Western cultures self-disclosure is seen as a trust-building and rewarding activity, Gudykunst and Nishida7 argued that Japanese people see self-disclosure differently. They suggested that the Japanese, as group oriented people, are relatively shy and feel uncomfortable sharing information with strangers (out-group members).

Americans, as individual oriented people, feel more comfortable exchanging information with strangers because this helps them reduce uncertainty and pave the way for mutual trust.7 Barnlund12 also observes that Japanese people communicate with strangers less frequently and even if they do, they self-disclose very little.

There seem to be several reasons why Japanese self-disclose less than Americans overall. By definition, self-disclosure is a verbal activity, and, as mentioned before, the Japanese put less emphasis on verbal compared to nonverbal communication, which may limit the amount of information that can possibly be disclosed.

Additionally, self-disclosure builds intimacy between involved parties but to many Japanese, intimacy means understanding and bonding whereas it mostly means physical contact for Americans. In other words, in Japan people get intimate over time and by developing a sense of togetherness; in the United States, on the other hand, people build and maintain intimacy by verbal statements such as compliments, concerns, and encouragements.15

Furthermore, Barnlund12 suggested that selfdisclosure is strongly related to selfknowledge and in general Americans have more self-knowledge than do the Japanese. Therefore Americans can self-disclose more, especially during initial interactions.

Lastly, a recent study that analyzed online information disclosure through computer-mediated communication found that another reason the Japanese do not self-disclose as much as Americans is their fear of negative appraisal or evaluation by peers.16

Context-based Communication in Japan & the United States 

In his seminal book Understanding Cultural Differences, Edward Hall defines context as “the information that surrounds an event; it is inextricably bound up with the meaning of that event. The elements that combine to produce a given meaning – events and context – are in different proportions depending on the culture. The cultures of the world can be compared on a scale from high to low context.17 (page 6)

According to Edward Hall, Japan and the Arab countries are at the highest end of the communication context continuum compared to North America, Scandinavia, and the German-speaking countries, which fall at the lower end.

It is postulated9 that most Japanese communication is indirect, nonverbal, and predominantly highcontext, as there are even words to indicate how people understand each other without using words: ishin denshin (mental telepathy), kuukiwo yomu (picking up on cues based on the atmosphere) and honne and tatemae (sincere versus insincere but socially expected statements).

The following excerpt from a book on why some Japanese women choose to marry foreigners explains how common indirect communication in Japan is:  

There is an unspoken belief among Japanese in general that putting deep feelings into words somehow lowers or spoils their value and that understanding attained without words is more precious than that understanding attained through precise articulation.

Interpersonal communication is based on a great deal of guessing and reading between the lines. In a culture where directness can seem ugly and repulsive, being able to guess the feelings of another and correctly grasp what she or he wishes to say without verbal expression is considered a sign of closeness between two persons.18

Iwao, S. (2008). Japanese woman. Free Press, p. 98

Although some people may think context solely means the immediate environment, when a conversation is taking place it mostly refers to shared background;17 it was found9 that Japanese people pay far more attention to someone’s background (company name, university name) than do Americans.

To sum up, high-context communication is associated with a preference for relationship maintenance over task completion, visual information over textual information, silence over verbosity, and indirect statements over direct ones, and the Japanese tend to meet all these criteria.9

The following table adapted from a study comparing Finland, India, and Japan19 illustrates the level of high-context communication in Japan: 

Communication StyleCultural features
IntrovertA lot of power traditions
ModestHigh commitment to complete action chains
Doesn’t interruptListening Nature
Uses SilenceData-orientation
Thinks in silenceHight situational relevance
Dislikes big talkersRelatively homogeneous
Little body languagePunctual
Table 13.3 Japanese Communication Style. Source: Nishimura et al. (2008)

Japan & the United States According to Hofstede 

Hofstede’s country index scores make it clear that Americans are more individualistic than the Japanese, and at the same time that Japan is a more masculine and uncertainty-avoidant country. It is easy to understand that the Japanese are more allocentric (group-oriented) and Americans more idiocentric (self-oriented), since Japanese culture is heavily influenced by Confucianism, which promotes loyalty to one’s group and family and conflict avoidance.20

Readers should note that Japan is not as collectivistic as China and Korea because historically in Japan the father leaves everything to the eldest son, not the whole family.21 High masculinity in Japan is mostly attributed to clear gender roles in Asia, whereas there is more equality among men and women in the United States.

It also appears that the ways Japanese men perceive women and romantic relationships are also influenced by high masculinity; one study found that Japanese did not find opposite gender relationship terms (e.g. fiancé, spouse, mate, etc.) as intimate as Americans.22 Lastly, Hofstede considers the Japanese to be more uncertainty-avoidant, as Japanese strictly avoid taking risks and feel uncomfortable being in an ambiguous situation.23 

Two distinct examples of the level of uncertainty avoidance were provided by the scholars from the pragmatics discipline.

The first study 24 qualitatively analyzed cooking recipes in Japanese and English. The results showed that Japanese recipes tended to include numbers for each step, color-coding for each category and a different illustration for each activity. Everything was far clearer and elaborated in the Japanese sample that was explained by the author with the history of rice farming in Japan that required very strict regulations and clear instructions because of limited land.

The second study 25 looked at the language used in manuals printed for British and Japanese users. The findings were similar as Japanese manuals included a higher number of graphics which was explained by the authors with the pictographic nature of the Japanese alphabet. The study, however, also found that there were more detailed warnings and a lot of advice, a reflection of high uncertainty avoidance in Japan.

Figure 13.2 The Index Scores of Japan and the USA. Source:

Relational Mobility in Japan & the United States 

Relational mobility, defined as “the general degree to which individuals in the society have the opportunities to form new and terminate old relationships,26 is an important factor that influences how people communicate and how much information they disclose to friends.

In some cultures, there are many opportunities to develop new relationships and in general relationships develop rapidly or last very long because of high social mobility (high frequency of changing careers, changing social roles, changing location, etc.) in society.

It is expected that in high social-mobility societies (such as the United States), people selfdisclose more information in a short time in order to establish relationships that may quickly end, whereas in low relational-mobility societies (such as Japan) people take time to disclose information because they may fear rejection in an environment where there are few opportunities to establish new friendships.26

Additionally, people in low relational-mobility societies also may not need to self-disclose much: they are likely to already know a great deal about each other as they share the same context. On the other hand, while one may expect low-social mobility societies to be more concerned about online privacy, research shows that high-social mobility societies are more worried about privacy in social media as they disclose more.27 The following table, provided by several researchers from Hokkaido University, summarizes the differences between high and low relational-mobility societies.26, 27, 28

Low Relational MobilityHigh Relational Mobility
Establishing friendships takes time Friendships established easily and quickly
Friendships last longFriendships don’t last long
Gradual self-disclosureEarly self-disclosure
Self-disclosure is riskySelf-disclosure increases liking/makes relationships stable
High commitment relationshipsLow commitment relationships
Smaller social circlesLarger friend circles
Believes relationships are stableBelieves self-disclosure needed for relationship maintenance
Difficult to get away from current relationshipsEasy to leave current relationships
Discloses info less on Facebook/ less worried about Facebook privacyDiscloses more info on Facebook/worried about privacy on Facebook
Example: JapanExample: USA
Table 12.4 High-Low Relational Mobility Societies

Chapter References:

  1. Van Evera, S. (1994). Hypotheses on nationalism and war. International Security, 18(4), 5-39.
  2. Toynbee, A. J. (1947). A study of history (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Northrop, F. S. C. (1946). The meeting of East and West: An inquiry concerning world understanding. New York: Macmillan.
  4. Nisbett, R.E. 2003. The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently, and why. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  5. Benedict, R. (1967). The chrysanthemum and the sword: Patterns of Japanese culture. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, NY.
  6. Doi, T. (1973). The anatomy of dependence (p. 153). Tokyo: Kodansha International.
  7. Gudykunst, W. B., & Nishida, T. (1994). Bridging Japanese/North American differences. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  8. Kubota, R. (1999). Japanese culture constructed by discourses: Implications for applied linguistics research and ELT. Tesol Quarterly, 33(1), 9-35. 194 References
  9. Singelis, T. M. (1994). The measurement of independent and interdependent self-construals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(5), 580-591.
  10. Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self:Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological review, 98(2), 224.
  11. Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., Matsumoto, H., & Norasakkunkit, V. (1997). Individual and collective processes in the construction of the self: self-enhancement in the United States and self-criticism in Japan. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72(6), 1245.
  12. Barnlund, D. C. (1975). Public and private self in Japan and the United States: Communicative styles of two cultures. Tokyo: Simul Press.
  13. Jourard, Sidney M. (197 1), Self-Disclosure: An experimental analysis of the transparent self. New York: Wiley.
  14. Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  15. Seki, K., Matsumoto, D., & Imahori, T. T. (2002). The conceptualization and expression of intimacy in Japan and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33(3), 303-319.
  16. Keaten, J. A., Kelly, L., Pribyl, C. B., & Sakamoto, M. (2009). Fear and competence in Japan and the US: Fear of negative evaluation, affect for communication channels, channel competence and use of
    computer mediated communication. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 38(1), 23-39.
  17. Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.
  18. Iwao, S. (2008). Japanese woman. Free Press.
  19. Nishimura, S., Nevgi, A., & Tella, S. (2008, February). Communication style and cultural features in high/low context communication cultures: A case study of Finland, Japan and India. In
    Kallioniemi, A., Renovating and developing subject didactics. Proceedings of a subject-didactic symposium in Helsinki on Feb (Vol. 2, No. 2008, pp. 783-796).
  20. Uichol, K. (1995). Individualism and collectivism: A psychological, cultural and ecological analysis (No. 21). NIAS Press.
  21. http://geert-hofsteDecom/japan.html
  22. Gudykunst, W. B., & Nishida, T. (1986). The influence of cultural variability on perceptions of communication behavior associated with relationship terms.Human Communication Research, 13(2), 147-166. Culture and Social Media 195
  23. Hofstede, G. H. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage.
  24. Martinec, R. (2003). The social semiotics of text and image in Japanese and English software manuals and other procedures. Social Semiotics, 13(1), 43-69.
  25. Carroll, T., & Delin, J. (1998). Written instructions in Japanese and English: A comparative analysis. Pragmatics, 8(3).
  26. Yuki, M., Schug, J. R., Horikawa, H., Takemura, K., Sato, K., Yokota, K., & Kamaya, K. (2007). Development of a scale to measure perceptions of relational mobility in society. Work. pap., Hokkaido
    Univ., Sapporo, Japan.
  27. Thomson, R. (2013). Socio-ecological structure and privacy concern on Facebook: The role of relational mobility. Unpublished master’s thesis. Hokkaido University, Sapporo, JP.
  28. Yuki, M., Sato, K., Takemura, K., & Oishi, S. (2013). Social Ecology Moderates the Association between Self-Esteem and Happiness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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