These days we often hear people talk about “communication skills” and the “importance of communication.”
According to the annual survey results regarding new graduate recruitment published by the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), communication skills have been ranked highest in the elements given priority in the screening of candidates for recruitment for the 10th consecutive year. Amid the rapid globalization of society, the number of Japanese companies that are making English an official internal language is also increasing. There are also probably many people who are diligently learning a foreign language to achieve their goal of working as an international person in a globalized society.
The question here is whether we can maintain good communication with other Japanese people because we speak the same language?
One Japanese engineer who was working in Los Angeles told me an interesting thing. According to him, while in Los Angeles, he felt that communication with Japanese at the head office in Tokyo using the Japanese language was the most difficult, compared to communication with his local American colleagues or Americans in affiliated companies. Why was this?
As one of the reasons, he pointed out “a difference in motivation.” The American colleagues were trying earnestly to understand what he was saying, while he was trying very hard to convey his thoughts. On the other hand, according to him, one feeling was always prevalent in both his own mind and that of people at the head office in Tokyo whenever they were in contact: “Why can’t you understand what I’m saying?”
Why did this difference occur? It is because, obviously, there was a presupposition among the Japanese people that “we should understand each other because we are all Japanese, speak the same language, and work for the same company.” On the other hand, he and his American colleagues were desperate to understand each other and to convey their own thoughts in English, and this desperation probably raised their motivation for communication.
It is, therefore, too simple to conclude that Japanese can communicate with each other easily because they speak the same language, while having difficulty in communicating with foreigners who speak a different language.
As society is becoming increasingly complex and values are diversifying, the need to coexist with people with different cultural backgrounds is increasing, both in and outside of Japan. To achieve this, we need to consciously and actively try to share and communicate our experiences and information.
Let us next discuss what is needed to enrich communication.
The word “communication” is derived from a Latin word “communicare,” which means communality. So communication is a process of developing commonality among multiple parties.
In the process of communication, it is important to be aware of three categories of identities.
The first is personal identity/identities. In this category, I identify myself by saying “I’m Kiyoko Sueda” or “I’m me” in response to the question of who I am. This is the personal “I,” not limited by my social roles.
The second is social identity/identities. For example, a woman’s identities may differ depending on the society or group she belongs to and her self-awareness of sharing the same culture with other members of the society or group. She may be “mother” in the family, “supervisor” at work, “student” in her sports club, and “Japanese” in a foreign country.
The third is superordinate identity/identities. In this category, I identify myself by saying “I’m an earthian” or “I’m a human” in response to the question of who I am. This is an identity that you share with the person you are communicating with.
In this way, we have multiple identities that vary in our communication with others.
For instance, imagine a scene in which Mr. Chen (Chinese, man, educator) and Ms. Suzuki (Japanese, woman, student) are communicating with each other. Their identities change from “Japanese and Chinese,” to “educator and student” then, to “Mr. Chen and Ms. Suzuki,” etc. depending on where they are communicating and what they are talking about.
Fig. 1 represents this change of identities graphically. The two sphere models illustrate how the identities change by rotating to make two contrasting identities appear side by side. Fig. 1 shows two currently contrasting social identities, with “educator” on one hand and “student” on the other. But these balls may rotate in another scene and the personal identities of “Mr. Chen” and “Ms. Suzuki” may become salient.
Identities are thus not fixed but are changeable depending on where and with whom you are communicating. It is important to know the multifaceted nature of the identities of others as well as of your own identities.
Paying attention to the multifaceted nature of the identities of others and yourself and disclosing or presenting yourself according to the situation in the process of communication leads to mutual understanding. However, even when the identity presented by you and that presented by the person you are communicating with are aligned on the same level, it is not unusual for a conflict (clash, antagonism, discord, tension) with that person to take place.
If this is the case, it is important to think about why the conflict has occurred and what needs to be done to solve the conflict, rather than avoiding the conflict. Communication skills are not just skills to make communication smooth but also to confront and address troubled communication.
In my class, I give students an assignment called the “group presentation project.” The assignment requires five to six students to form a group, set a study theme based on what they have learned in the past one year, conduct literature and field research, and present the results within 20 minutes.
One of the objectives of this project is to provide the students with an opportunity to relate what they have learned through lectures to their daily lives. But there is another important objective. It is to have each student assess themselves on the way they have communicated with the other members of the group and the way they have been involved in the group throughout the process from the setting of the study theme to the presentation.
During the process of sharing ideas and having discussions before fulfilling their common goal of completing the project, clashes of ideas, frictions among the members, and feelings of discomfort naturally arise. The students are assigned to write a report on their experiences.
The reports submitted are records of the various feelings that the students have experienced and the many things that they have learned. Some wonder why the members did not follow their own style of leadership. Some regret that they didn’t support the leader more. Some are pleased that they were able to encounter a great idea they had never thought of after they had difficulty coordinating different ideas proposed by their fellow group members.
Among those reports, one student reported that she was not able to say what she wanted to say to her good friend because she was afraid that it might damage her future relationship with the friend. She was so afraid of creating a conflict that she failed to deepen her communication with her friend. She probably had the mistaken idea that giving her own opinion would mean denying her friend.
On the other hand, another student wrote that, although he did not like the group at first because he was not familiar with the other members, this turned out to be good for him because he was able to say what he wanted to say and by the end of the project he became good friends with them. In this way, there are also many students who, by focusing on their assigned task and saying what they want to say, are able to build new relationships as well as achieve a good learning outcome.
To establish your identities while communicating with others, it is important to have pride in yourself (an emotion in which you accept what you are). However, the process of communication always involves generating a feeling of shame (an emotion you feel when rejected or denied).
In cases when a person feels shame for some reason in an interaction or relationship with another person, their relationship can be mended easily if they speak frankly. However, if the shame remains unaddressed, the relationship is often destroyed. This can be said not just of personal relationships but of relations between nations. There are too many examples in which the root cause of an international dispute is bypassed, building up shame endlessly and resulting in a tragic end.
To break this kind of negative chain reaction or vicious cycle, you need to squarely face your own shame and, at the same time, take the other party’s shame seriously as well. For this, it is important to know how you can respect the other party’s pride and be able to perceive on what identity the other party’s pride is based.
So when we experience troubled communication, what should we do to restore a normal relationship?
One thing that we must keep in mind is to be aware that differences lead to creativity. Even when we have different opinions, respecting, accepting, and discussing things with the other party will lead to the creation of a new idea. In other words, we must respect and sincerely address any difference (agree to disagree).
In cases when troubled communication occurs, we must lean forward and be closer to the other party. Our distance to the other party must be so close that we can feel their temperature, and all barriers between us must be removed. This is an expression of our respect for the other party’s intelligence, and when the meaning of this expression is understood by the other party we can overcome the deadlock in communication.
I believe this is the essence of communication. Language skills are, needless to say, important for communication in this era of globalization. But there is something that is more important than language skills: knowing the essence of communication and showing respect for others.
(This column is as of 2015.)