Read the Air

November 20th, 2007 by Steph

We’re told over and over as foreigners living in Japan that this is a high-context culture. On an abstract level, this means that many things are left unsaid, and it is the listener’s job to tease meaning out of innuendo and implication. Practically speaking, this may manifest itself as imperatives in the form of polite suggestion, or outright refusal disguised as the slightest hesitation.

This quality of Japanese communication can be described by a delicious little phrase: 空気を読む(Kuuki o yomu). The literal translation is “read the air”, and it describes how you have to feel out not just what’s being said, but also what’s left unsaid. Just like “reading between the lines”, 空気を読む describes in a nutshell the necessity of ascertaining intent from the barest framework of spoken words.

I thought this was a clever and elegant expression, until it came up at work, when one of my Japanese co-workers decided to explain some slang to me. If someone can’t grasp the nuance of what you’re saying, if your friend just isn’t getting it, you say “Kuuki o yomanai”, or “You’re not reading the air”. This has been abbreviated, perhaps unfortunately, to K.Y. To illustrate his point, my fellow teacher pointed to a student across the room, and in a loud enthusiastic voice, declared “He is K.Y.! He is K.Y.!”.

Needless to say, this proclamation brought up other, somewhat distracting connotations. When asked about the funny look I had on my face, all I could do was explain was that KY was a certain… um, medicine?… in America. I really didn’t need to go into details with my male co-worker. Let’s hope he can read the air, notice my amused expression and the uncomfortable silence, and limit his use of this particular phrase to Japan.

One Response to “Read the Air”

  1. Steph Says:

    For more on the KY phenomenon:
    http://www.japanprobe.com/?p=3676

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