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Falcon Reese | Tongues Tied

Bite your tongue

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 06:03

Last week’s column ended with a linguistic treatise on how to deal with people who need to be slapped in the face. The first option was, obviously, to slap them in the face — certainly a more cathartic choice. Option two was to glare at the offender until the laser beams of hate shooting out of your eyes melt them into a puddle of protoplasm. Or reduce them to tears. I didn’t, however, mention option three — biting your tongue.

Well of course I didn’t mention it! What fun is biting your tongue?

But how often are you having a conversation with a friend, talking about some schmuck you had to deal with who was a) driving you up a wall, b) being unnecessarily rude to you, and/or c) needed to be put in their place? So you say to your friend, “And then I was like, [insert here perfectly worded tirade with just the right amount of sass and wit to demonstrate that you do in fact have a backbone and don’t take crap from anybody].”

But you weren’t “like” anything, were you? That was just what you hypothetically would have said had social standards not advised against pitching a fit and instead dictated that you put up a façade of politesse while quietly grinding your molars to nubs.

There are the rare few who will speak their mind in any and all situations — respect, yo. But I think it’s fair to say that most of us are choosier about picking our battles and more often than not, we’ll bow out with a grimace. That difference is the difference between the two Japanese words “honne” and “tatemae.” The former translates to “true intention” and the latter to “façade,” and they refer to our actual feelings and what we actually think versus the face that we show the public and how we act.

This duality is forcefully ingrained in the Japanese cultural identity. As a collectivist culture rather than an individualistic one, the Japanese traditionally prize “wa,” or “harmony.” In practice, this translates to group loyalty over individual consideration — or as Spock would say: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In Japanese culture, even when you don’t agree, you shut up and go along with the group for the sake of maintaining “wa.”

The difference between biting your tongue in America and biting your tongue in Japan, though, is that it’s expected in Japan. In America, when you smile and compliment someone’s atrocious new haircut, the default assumption is that you’re being genuine. In Japan, the default assumption isn’t necessarily that you’re not being genuine, but it is assumed that you’re saying what’s polite — genuine or not.

I mean, this is a culture so polite that it speaks a language with a dozen different ways to conjugate a single verb, only to result in an identical translation. The only difference between them all is the social situation in which you’d use them — a phenomenon called “keigo,” or “respectful language.” When I was studying for Japanese exams, this manic adherence to politeness was enough to make me want to tell my professors to shove their language up their — Oh. Wait. No. Tatemae. I love Japanese, quirks and all.

Despite that, I’m somewhat ambivalent on the issue of “honne” versus “tatemae.” On the one hand, it would be nice to live without guilt for being anything less than being completely honest with someone. On the other hand, when I do pick my battles, it’s more than a little satisfying to see that schmuck choke on their own words.

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Falcon Reese is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached at Falcon.Reese@tufts.edu.

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