One of the challenges of living in Japan was a permanent, awkward sense of imbalance in my relationships. It seemed that I, and everyone around me, was simultaneously needy and aloof.
For years I wondered if it was me, but I was never particularly needy or aloof with my friends in America, or friends I made just months before leaving for Japan. Now, in a new environment (London) but still an expat, my feelings and approaches to meeting people are back to some degree of normal.
It’s almost as if something in Japan had seeped into my thinking about friendship. At first I thought it was a Japanese phenomenon. People were friendly but distant, with limited self-disclosure, few emotional displays. Bonding was a subtle affair: Do you want a beer? If yes, you were friends. It was easy to get into the doorway of Japanese friendships, but I never got very deep into the house. I’d say that was the language barrier, but then I noticed something weird: It was happening with other expats in Japan.
Was I going crazy? Was everyone suddenly annoyed by self-disclosure? If I admitted to hardships, romantic problems, self-doubt, I might get glazed eyes and a change of subject. If I told someone that they meant something to me, or that I was grateful for their friendship, or just really excited to know them, the response seemed, always, to border on a pulling away. I started wondering if I was self-obsessed, talked too much, or came off as desperate in my enthusiasm. So I stopped talking. I had been an expressive person, but I started to feel ashamed of that. It started to feel like I was taking more than I could give. Then I noticed something else.
People drank, revealed, and apologized. Profusely, for having conversations that, in any other time and place, would have been things friends simply talked about over a coffee.
Sociologists Have a Name for Everything
Research (Here you go: Chen, 1995; Asai & Barnlund, 1998; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1983; Kito, 2005; Ting-Toomey, 1991) has shown that East Asians are, generally speaking, more reluctant than Westerners to seek out, and feel comforted by, social support when they’re stressed out. Physically, East Asian cultures even show lower physiological evidence of “relief” after disclosing to friends.
In Japan, friendships can be hard to forge. It’s not a place where you sit next to someone on a train and start a chat about the book they’re reading. The entire process of friendship involves a lot of formality. You usually find someone to mediate an introduction.
I welcomed this when I was there, part of the school of “mind your own business and let people be” that has seeped, perhaps toxically, into my psyche. But at some point, disclosure and openness started to make me uncomfortable. I still feel it now, in stodgy Britain, where it’s similar, where Americans are called out for overbearing expressiveness. I can see it in other people, how easily they give themselves away, and I find it terrifying, even though I did the same thing.
The expat community tends to resemble native Japanese communities in that both have low levels of relational mobility, the word researchers use to describe the flexibility that a culture allows for making new friends. North American bus-chatterers rank quite highly in relational mobility: Strike up a conversation in a coffee shop, a bus, the toll booth guy. Japan ranks quite low, because making new friends requires an enormous effort.
In situations like Japan, where relational mobility is low, there is also a lower degree of effort required to maintain those friendships once they’ve been formed. Friends won’t go away, because they can’t. In high mobility cultures, like the US, you spend more time making sure your friends know they are appreciated, because at any point they could decide they’d really rather not hang out with you and run off with someone else – friend-dumped for the toll booth guy.
Friendships are run through a cruel and particular kind of pressure as a contract worker in Japan. I had a fixed community of people I could engage with throughout that cycle of contract work. Some left, some stayed, new people came. On the whole, however, it seemed impossible to get away from the people in your proximity, whether you wanted to spend every day with them or not.
It becomes a lot easier if you just maintain a basic, uncomplicated level of friendship. We had low mobility, and so it was safe to assume that your friend would still be your friend in a week or a month, even if you never spoke to them. Likewise, self-disclosure – which forms and cements bonds of friendship in high relational mobility cultures by gradually escalating (platonic) intimacy – becomes risky.
“The revelation of sensitive personal information to another, self-disclosure[,] can signal commitment because it indicates a willingness to be vulnerable to the partner, a distinct marker of trust and commitment in a relationship.” (Mayer, 1995).
But there’s a downside, too: The risk of revealing too much, becoming too vulnerable, and of putting too much power in someone else’s hands. When you disclose, you give someone else intimate information that could be used against you. And when you can’t easily make new friends, the cost of that exclusion is extravagantly high. So, the traditional bond-sealing activity of close friends in a major Western city, for example, might be getting drunk and telling-all. But in a closed circuit, that makes people extremely vulnerable to rumors, judgments, and rejection.
Best not to say anything at all.
In one survey, by Joanna Schug & Masaki Yuki at Hokkaido University, American students were more likely to say that making new friends was easy, compared to Japanese students. The American students were also more likely to self-disclose within a friendship than Japanese students were, on topics such as embarrassments, secrets, failures, and worries.
Meanwhile, Americans (who also typically made more new friends in a three-month span than the Japanese people did) were more likely to self-disclose to friends based on the number of new friends they had made. In other words, the more friends an American has, the more they reveal to those friends. Presumably, this stems from the security of a social network; it also indicates that the person who self-discloses more considers more people their friend, a kind of egg-hen scenario.
Everyone Has to Live With You
Self-disclosure is also a useful tool for regulating intimacy. If you want to step back from someone, you limit your self-disclosure. In a healthy relationship or friendship, there is mutual reciprocation: One person slows things down, the other slows down to match their speed.
But what we disclose, when in close quarters to other people, often feels like it is defining who we are. We can get trapped in the image painted by the colors we show. I know you and like you and you aren’t going anywhere – so why should we admit our weaknesses, or reveal a secret that might trap me in a negative perception? Once I do, suddenly our friendship becomes more complicated. There’s a power dynamic. Instead of getting closer, we push people away.
I’m not sure why I was different, for so long, but instead of viewing platonic intimacy as a threat, I saw it as a means of being known to another person. It was just what friends did: Talk, share, reassure one another that the weird shit we think and feel is part of a giant web of weird shit that people think and feel. Our vulnerabilities might not make us stronger, but they reveal how brave we are for going on in the world despite them all. The more comfortable I felt revealing myself to someone I trusted, the better I felt about my own cornucopia of hang-ups and insecurities.
I spent a lot of time worrying that I should have been more tight-lipped in Japan, should have worn fewer feelings so prominently on my sleeve. Of course, there’s a difference between honest communication and the sense of entitlement that someone should do something about your feelings. You can shout your feelings and demand action, that’s not going to get anybody anywhere. I’ve been guilty of that, too.
I’m sure I have alienated people along the way (I know, for a fact, that I did). But it’s important to sort out the honest expression from the manipulative and the dishonest expressions (dishonest honesty). When I told the truth, the truth and not the truth filtered through my own unanalyzed anxieties, I can say I was never too ashamed to keep secrets from the people I trusted most, even when there was nowhere else for them to go, anyway.
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