Mount Fuji

'Code words' provide shortcut to
understanding foreign cultures

Defining people by their race while virtually ignoring their ethnicity has always been both dumb and dangerous, but now, finally, the importance of understanding cultures is rapidly becoming a new mantra for business leaders as well as diplomats and politicians.

For most people, however, understanding the cultures of others is a process that requires long periods of living in and personally experiencing their attitudes and behavior — often preceded by or combined with extensive studies of research by anthropologists and sociologists.

But there is an easier and faster way of getting into and understanding the mindset of people. While working in Asia as a trade journalist in the 1950s and 60s I learned that the attitudes and behavior of the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans were summed up in a relatively small number of key words in their languages — words that explained why they thought and behaved the way they did.

I first became aware of the role that key words play in the mindset and behavior of the Japanese in my attempts to explain their way of thinking and doing things to American importers who began flocking to Japan in the early 1950s.

I made use of this key-word approach in my first book, Japanese Etiquette & Ethics in Business, published in 1959, introducing the international business community to such terms as wa (harmony), nemawashi (behind the scenes consensus-building), tatemae (a facade or front in conversations and negotiations) and honne (the real intentions, the real meaning of the speaker).

The more I got into the Japanese, Korean and Chinese way of thinking and doing things, the more obvious it became that they were culturally programmed and controlled by key words in their languages, and that these words provided a shortcut to understanding them.

Further experiences in Mexico and other countries confirmed that the beliefs and behavior of people in all societies — especially older societies — are primarily programmed by their native language and that learning the meaning and everyday use of key words in the language reveals in precise detail what they have been conditioned to believe and why they behave the way they do.

This led me in the 1980s and 90s to write a series of "cultural code word" books on China, Japan, Korea and Mexico, in which I identified and defined — in all of their cultural nuances — several hundred key words in the languages concerned.

The fact that you must be intimately familiar with key terms in the native language of a people in order to fully understand their thinking and behavior is of incredible importance, but it is not yet common knowledge even among scholars and educators, much less diplomats, politicians and the international business community.

This failure to perceive and understand the role of languages in human behavior is one of the primary reasons why the world is continuously roiled by misunderstandings, friction and violence. We cannot communicate fully and effectively across the cultural barriers built into languages.

Languages — not things — preserve and transmit culture!

Most people still today mistakenly regard the arts and crafts of individual societies as their 'culture.' Arts and crafts reflect culture but they do not create it and they do not transmit it. You can view and collect Chinese artifacts or Eskimo artifacts all your life and you will not become fully conversant with the cultures that created them.

Languages are, in fact, the repository as well as the transmitter of cultures. They contain the essence, the tone, the flavor and the spirit of cultures, and serve as doorways to understanding them — and this critical role of language in the attitudes and behavior of people provides irrefutable evidence that to become American in the fullest sense one must learn English.

It is fairly simple to interpret or translate technical subjects from one language into another, but translating cultural attitudes and values into another language ranges from difficult to impossible. The translations may be perfectly correct as far as the words are concerned, but they seldom if ever include all of the cultural nuances that are bound up in the words and are the essence of the original language.

This often results in people talking at each other instead of to each other — and generally neither side understands why they are seldom if ever in perfect agreement … why they cannot get along.

Among the advanced nations, we Americans are the least sensitive to the cultural differences that separate people, and therefore continue to make mistakes when interacting with other cultures.

This problem will continue until the study of other cultures becomes a fundamental part of the education we all receive in our youth. I propose that the role of languages in the values and behavior of people be made a mandatory course in all American schools.

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Editor's note: Boyé L. De Mente, who first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces, holds a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona. 

He is best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking. 

For a complete list of De Mente's books in print or online as digital editions, please go to Amazon.com. Learn more about the author's fascinating career at http://arts.searchbeat.com/boye.htm, and follow his personal news and reviews at http://boyedemente.blogspot.com.

I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for kindly allowing us to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.