The subtle art of non-imposed disclosure with new acquaintances

This past quarter I taught an online course on intercultural communication to students from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. A few weeks ago, we were considering cultural differences in self-disclosure related to whether, when, what and how much to share, and with whom. During the discussion section, students were put in breakout rooms and asked to talk about experiences that they had had when speaking with someone from another culture in which differing cultural expectations of self-disclosure seemed to play a role.

When we reassembled in the main room, students from the different groups told the rest of the class what they had talked about. To my surprise, one of the Japanese students said that she had been taken aback during an earlier discussion in the course itself. In the first class of the quarter, they had similarly been put in breakout rooms and asked to tell each other a little bit about their cultural backgrounds, such as places they had lived or visited and languages they spoke. According to the student, some revealed more about their backgrounds than what she had imagined as a “self-introduction.”

Based on data collected in the BTSJ corpus of the English and Japanese Interaction Research Group, applied linguist Yuka Shigemitsu has researched what kind of information is appropriate to share when meeting someone for the first time, particularly focusing on questions. Asking questions appropriately in Japanese is a more delicate operation than in English, and Shigemitsu’s analysis really illuminates the challenges.

Shigemitsu compares the beginning of a conversation between three American men with a similar one involving three Japanese men. In the first 19 turns of the Americans’ conversation, they spend the first six doing the typical niceties, like saying their names and “Nice to meet you.” In the remaining 13 turns, four questions are asked, and by the end of the 19 turns all three have given information about where they’re from, and two about their studies, helped along by focused probes, like “Where in California?” or “A William and Mary shirt, I see?”

The corresponding Japanese conversation goes rather differently. Over 22 turns, no one asks a single question, and six turns are simply uncomfortable laughter. In the first three turns they also say, “Nice to meet you,” without saying their names. Laughter ensues. One of the conversation participants sets himself up as a de facto conversation moderator, suggesting they next do self-introductions and says his name. After confirming this speaker’s name, another says his own name, followed by the last speaker telling his name. Then there’s a two-second silence, and the person who has taken on the role of facilitator comments that they need to talk. One laughs and the other says, “Well.” The now firmly entrenched leader suggests discussing their research interests and the other two express appreciation with “Ohhhhh” and “That…that is good.” Compared to the Americans’ conversation, much less has been revealed over a similar number of turns and no one has been put on the spot by being required to answer a question.

Shigemitsu further analyzed all of the conversations in Japanese in the BTSJ corpus, 20 sets in total, all of first-time conversations of 30 minutes between two or three male participants. The participants were told, “You are invited to a party at a teacher’s house (or someone you know). The host, the teacher (or the person you know), needs to go out to get more food and drinks at a nearby shop. So, suddenly, you are left alone at his/her house with people you do not know and who do not know each other.” The data yielded 570 minutes of talk, with 369 questions that prompted new information.

Types of information Americans are likely to think are just the thing to ask about in this kind of situation appear almost taboo. For example, in one conversation the participants did not talk about university affiliation until 20 minutes into their conversation, even though they’d discussed their research in some detail. After a three-second pause, one man asks in a curtailed, diffident way, “Where?” Following the response, a follow-up question is asked and answered about the location. There’s a one-second pause. Then the questioner asks the third man the question fragment “Where?” He replies, “Here, with just men.” Again, a one-second pause, and the other two say “Oh” with no strong reaction, although the university he has declined to mention by name is one of the most famous science universities in Japan.

Queries about PhD plans are similarly unwelcome. In another conversation, when a participant is asked about it, he deflects it, saying “What should I do?” The third participant laughs, and the original questioner repeats, “What should I do?” prompting laughter from the man who was questioned. The second man, who first laughed, laughs again and he too says, “What should I do?” The one who received the question sums it up with, “It’s like that.” Next the third participant is asked if he’s in a PhD program currently. He too does not welcome the question, replying in a fragmented way that he’s still working on his MA. When the original questioner asks him about plans for a PhD, he says he was thinking of it but he’s thinking about taking a job for now. The other two say “Oh” with no strong reaction and no further questions about the job.

On rare occasions, a brave soul has a genuine question, but they clearly worry about causing offense and may receive no assistance from those being questioned. In one conversation, a technology student wants to ask the other two why they study linguistics. The conversation goes on for a whopping 42 turns with the other two just saying “uh-huh” and “yes” from time to time even though it is soon clear what he wants to ask, amid many mitigators like, “What should I say?” and “I’m just asking out of curiosity” and expressing interest about why people might commonly study linguistics rather than asking them directly. When the question finally becomes explicit — Whew! — one of the linguistics researchers says, “Right. Important idea,” and gives a general answer. Shigemitsu notes that this kind of question is very rare in the data, and who can blame them?

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.