LINGUIST List 14.1891

Tue Jul 8 2003

Review: Anthropological Ling/Socioling: Yamada (2002)

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  • Sufumi So, Different Games Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other

    Message 1: Different Games Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other

    Date: Mon, 07 Jul 2003 20:20:59 +0000
    From: Sufumi So <>
    Subject: Different Games Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other

    Yamada, Haru (2002) Different Games Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other, Oxford University Press.

    Announced at

    Sufumi So, Carnegie Mellon University

    The 2002 volume of Haru Yamada's ''Different Games Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other'' is a paperback edition of its hardcover original published in 1997 also by Oxford University Press. Since its first publication the book has received various reviews, mostly positive but occasionally disapproving. The book has been recommended to American and Japanese businesspeople as well as American students of Japanese studies, cultural studies, anthropology, and sociolinguistics.

    The book is about communication and miscommunication between American and Japanese businesspeople. Unlike the author's first book on the same topic, ''American and Japanese Business Discourse: A Comparison of Interactional Styles'' (Ablex, 1992), it is written in the kind of language easily comprehensible to general readers. The author, a fully- balanced bilingual and bicultural of Japanese and American English, brings in many of her personal experiences as well as her private observations and insights as a foreign resident in the U.S., an office worker, and a researcher of business communication to make a case for each of the key aspects of American and Japanese oral communication discussed in the book's chapters. The fact that arguments are presented with the support of anecdotal, rather than scientific, evidence is often a reason for both positive and negative comments about the book. The author introduces the book as ''an insider's guide to American and Japanese communication'' (p. vi). Her goal of writing this book is clear: To help Americans and Japanese understand cross-cultural differences better so as to achieve higher levels of competition and communication between them. However, what specific readership she had in mind is not stated explicitly. A brief remark made in one of the favorable reviews available on the Internet characterizes the nature of the book very well: ''Granted, it's not perfect, but if you had time to read only one book on the Japanese before jumping on a plane to negotiate your company's deal, [this is it]. I would hope this might be one of the books on the Airport bookstore's shelf.''

    The book consists of 10 chapters cast in the metaphor that derived from the 1869 football games between Rutgers and Princeton, in which Rutgers won when Rutgers's rules were in place and vice versa (p. v). The central message is that there are different rules at work in different places even for the ''same'' activity, be it football or business. To present the anatomy of miscommunication between Americans and Japanese in the business context, the author starts with an argument that different communication rules are used in these two places, reflecting different modes of thinking. The author draws on familiar examples such as English and Japanese versions of Aesop's Fable, the American sitcom ''Blossom,'' and the movies ''The Magnificent Seven'' and ''The Seven Samurai'' to show how Americans and Japanese react to similar situations very differently. In this first chapter that sets the ground for the rest of the book, two key concepts are introduced to characterize American and Japanese modes of communication, ''Equal Opportunity Independence'' for Americans and ''Others-Centered Interdependence'' for Japanese (both are the author's own terms).

    In chapter 2 the author seeks examples of Equal Opportunity Independence and Others-Centered Interdependence manifested in the linguistic systems of English and Japanese. These examples include the use of pronouns, tenses, negation, and word order. In chapter 3 the author moves beyond the sentence-level analysis and examines pragmatics of naming, agreeing, disagreeing, thanking, and apologizing comparing American and Japanese conventions. In this chapter the concepts of Equal Opportunity Independence and Others- Centered Interdependence are linked to a speaker-based American strategy (Speaker Talk) and a listener-based Japanese strategy (Listener Talk) of communication respectively. The author describes these different modes of communication not just as facts of life but as sources of misunderstanding between Americans and Japanese.

    Starting with Chapter 4, a discussion centers more specifically on the business context. First, the author examines typical patterns of business practice in the U.S. and Japan in chapter 4. Once again, the concepts of Equal Opportunity Independence and Others-Centered Interdependence are mapped onto various contrasting aspects of American and Japanese business practices. The whole point of this chapter is that individualism is the centerpiece of American business practice while relationships matter more than individuals in Japanese business.

    Chapters 5 through 8 each present a number of contrastive strategies of American and Japanese business communication that reflect differences between Equal Opportunity Independence and Others-Centered Interdependence, between Speaker Talk and Listener Talk, and between individual- and team-oriented business practices. Chapter 5 discusses the ''talk about talk'' (i.e., a prelude to a main topic) communication strategy and the use of silence that are played out differently in American and Japanese business conversations. Chapter 6 is about American and Japanese strategies of communicating their points. The American strategy is, according to the author, more straightforward and does not have to take into consideration what the audience may be thinking. In contrast, the Japanese strategy is a more subtle and roundabout one, shifting gears according to the listener's reactions. Chapter 7 examines back-channel cues and turn-taking in conversations and chapter 8 looks at the notions and practices of teasing, praising, and repeating. The contrastive communication strategies discussed in these chapters can create frustration and conflict in cross-cultural communication without understanding the rules of the game in the other field. The author sends a message consistently that just knowing the other party's communicative conventions makes a big difference in doing international business.

    In chapter 9 the author steps away from a descriptive account of various communication strategies and attempts to explain the sources of American Speaker Talk and Japanese Listener Talk. The author argues that behind these different styles of communication are different role models cherished in the U.S. and Japan, that is, the American working man who earns money for living versus the Japanese nurturing mother who controls a household budget. According to the author, the ways American and Japanese businesspeople--men or women-- communicate reflect the images of their respective role models.

    In chapter 10, the concluding chapter of the book, the author zooms out from the scenes of American and Japanese behavior and communication and touches on the more broader issue of identity and its psychological implications that are manifested in the use of language. Lastly, the author encourages readers ''to try to understand American and Japanese communication and relationships in their own right'' or ''to see the Americans and the Japanese for who they really are'' (p. 147) which, according to the author, is the key to resolving cross-cultural communication problems.


    The book is highly readable, devoid of technical terms and full of illustrative stories. As a native speaker of Japanese living in North America for some time, I have observed many similar situations to the ones included in the book. However, there are stories that have never been my experiences such as the Japanese version of ''The Grasshopper and the Ants'' that the author uses. Anecdotes are always based on one's personal experiences and they are true in their own right. However, how representative those personal experiences are is a question that is not answered in the book but the critical reader may wish to be answered.

    Further, the quote (p. 62) from Chambers and Cummings's book on Japanese-style recruiting that is deeply linked to the name values of prestigious universities in the 1980s seems outdated. The economic recession that began plaguing Japan since the early 1990s and the reform movement of Japanese universities that also started in the 1990s have changed the attitude of Japanese companies and affected their recruitment practice, placing more emphasis on what the applicant can contribute rather than his or her educational backgrounds. This prompts me to ponder which elements of communication strategies in each culture are the variable and which are the invariable in the dynamics of social changes (e.g., Japanese children today receive instruction in debate skills at school and they are encouraged to speak their minds; American-style law schools will start in Japan in 2004, the result of which may lead to the spread of the notion of protecting the individual's rights).

    A problem of essentialism is inherent in any kind of comparative work. ''Different Games Different Rules'' is no exception. The binary articulation of American and Japanese communication strategies, which is summarized usefully in the table or short prose at the end of each chapter, can also be restrictive in that it allows the reader to ignore or deny differences within the same culture. The author may have wished at least to give a word of warning against this potential pitfall that accompanies the process of essentializing.

    To tell stories about Americans and Japanese, the author is generally careful in supplying indicators that make it clear which is referred to (e.g., using typical American and Japanese names; adding ''American'' and ''Japanese'' before such words as ''man'' and ''woman''). However, occasionally such indicators are missing, which causes the reader to make a guess at the referent's identity. For instance, there is a sentence on page 64, ''For example, a university professor once told me about a Japanese student who came to him one day and said, ''You will be my advisor.'' It is not difficult to infer that this university professor is American. However, such explicitness seems a requirement in English writing and I personally looked in vain for a word identifying ''a university professor'' quite subconsciously.

    The text is filled with Japanese words which the author apparently believes are worth using in the original. The general practice is that a Japanese word is given in italics with its English equivalent in parentheses at its first appearance. After the first appearance, the Japanese word is integrated in the English sentence in the regular font style as if it were in the English vocabulary. This practice of code-mixing could be frustrating for readers who have little knowledge of the Japanese language.


    Sufumi So teaches Japanese language courses and seminar courses on second language acquisition in Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. Her research interests include the process and context of Japanese-as-a-foreign-language writing and Japanese scientific writing.