“I think the students might be busy after school, so perhaps they won’t come to our meeting. I’m not sure. But if that’s the case, we’ll have to cancel the meeting for today.”
In English, this sentence means nobody really knows what’s going on after school yet, but there’s a chance they might cancel the meeting.
In Japanese, it means that the teacher has spoken directly to the students, found out that they have another appointment from exactly 3:55 to 4:35 p.m., has verified the appointment and has already rescheduled the meeting.
If we actually didn’t know whether the students were busy after school, I’d find that out through the same sentence.
The Trouble with Words
First, I recognize that I’m primarily responsible for any bad communication I experience in Japan. I didn’t have to move to a country where I was an illiterate and inept speaker, and the people speaking English are doing a fine job.
This is a cultural issue, not a translation issue.
Part of the problem with sharing the world with people is that eventually, you have to come to a consensus about it. Language usually gets the job done, but when you’re about as eloquent as a trained raven you realize words are an unstable indicator of reality.
Trimming the Hedges
The first order of business in writing, according to culture warriors Strunk and White, is to “omit needless words.” I sort of think words that kind of imply uncertainty are probably the best to get rid of, maybe?
Editors call them “weasel words,” because they give the author room to “weasel out” of an argument. In my work as a copy editor I’d excise them without mercy – words like “Perhaps,” “Maybe,” “Probably,” “It seems,” “I think” and, in college newspapers or my blog, “sort of” and “kind of.”
There are two places for these words in journalism: When you have reason to speculate, and when you are trying to write like David Foster Wallace. In news, if the facts are ambiguous, we don’t publish them until they’re verified. No one reads a newspaper to find out what “probably” happened. No one is “sort of” guilty of first-degree murder.
But because of Strunk and White’s edict to “use vigorous language,” good English writing is soaking with certainty. We teach assertion and self-confidence before we even teach how to formulate a compelling argument. The American ideal is to believe in yourself, and then you can do anything.
Which, believe me, is great.
In Japan, it’s precisely the opposite.
The Japanese language loves ambiguity. Declarative sentences aren’t confident, they’re arrogant. People knock down bold assertions until they reach a consensus, and if you’re outside of that consensus you’ll be ridiculed for your boldness.
And to save face – and, I suspect, because of the Buddhist idea of transience – nothing is spoken of as a permanent, factual thing.
So, Buddhist or not, I never hear simple declarative sentences in Japan.
What they say, instead, is “tabun,” which literally translates as “maybe” and expresses humble uncertainty over what Americans might call “verified facts.”
Most of the conversations I have with co-workers start with the words “probably,” “maybe,” or “perhaps.” The threshold of uncertainty is pretty low. Americans may need a 60 percent chance or less to declare something “probable” rather than “certain,” while in Japan the threshold hovers around 96 percent.
So “probably” becomes anything between “definitely” and “never.”
An enormous part of Japan’s politeness is “saving face.” You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and you don’t want your feelings to get hurt. This defines an overwhelming extent of Japanese life.
You need to leave everyone – including yourself – some room to back away from possible conflict. So you hedge your statements. There’s wiggle room: “Oh, I said it would probably happen.”
Because firm refusals or orders are taboo, Japanese culture can seem totally passive-aggressive. People drop a lot of hints.
“Ah, perhaps your co-workers are very busy, and will have extra work if you leave early today, ne?”
Trapped in Ambiguity
As a foreigner, I’ve been quietly frustrated by this back-door approach, which oftentimes feels like entrapment. People rarely come out and ask for exactly what they want. Instead, they build up to their full request incrementally.
For the Japanese speaker, it’s a way of feeling things out, giving you lots of room to back out or adjust the plan, or to imply the negative news without bringing it up directly. When someone asks if you’re free on Tuesday, you can infer whether you’re going to stick around for an extra 15 minutes or start working six extra hours a week for the rest of your career.
For the English speakers unaccustomed to this indirect style – that is, those who haven’t yet become psychic – it feels like we’re slowly being pulled into a trap.
A Japanese teacher might ask, “Perhaps you have this Tuesday night free?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Maybe you can stay after school to meet with some students for a contest?”
“Oh, sure,” I’ll say.
“Maybe a half hour tomorrow?”
“Ah, OK, I can do that.”
“But maybe there are three students,” and the escalation begins – “So probably it will take an hour and a half. Sorry about that!”
“Oh, uhm, sure,” I’ll say, a little flustered. “An hour and a half tomorrow is fine.”
“The contest is next month, so if you are free on Tuesday, perhaps they will want to meet with you each Tuesday. Is that alright?”
“Uhm, OK, so… you want me to meet with the students every Tuesday for an hour and half, for the entire month?”
“Oh, thank you so much, that will be very helpful.”
I try to be generous in these situations and remember that I wasn’t deliberately suckered into something. I was just being asked for a favor backwards.
It’s not enough to declare that the word “probably” means “certainly” when spoken in Japan, because “probably” also occasionally means “probably.”
Once, I was told that the bus for a field trip would “probably” leave at 9:30 a.m. I was wise to this game, so I kept my eye on the clock.
At 9:15 a.m., a co-worker came up to chat, telling me I’d probably have a lot of free time today because of the field trip.
“Oh, I’m going on the field trip,” I said, with foolish certainty.
“Ah. Perhaps you are going by car?”
“No, I’m taking the bus,” I said. “I should probably get going?”
“Perhaps,” the co-worker said. “But, I think, perhaps, the bus has already left?”
“I think it leaves at 9:30?” I said.
“Ah, maybe. But, I think perhaps it has already left?”
Sure enough, it probably had.
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