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The art of belonging: Japanese culture and small group English discussions

Reputations are made in small groups. This is true from the pre-school playground to the nursing home. One’s ability to engage and interact with one’s peers defines our role and position, the wider perceptions of our value to the group, to the community, even to society at large. For Japanese who are members of professional and academic discourse communities this means that their ability to function in such setting has a crucial impact upon their status as researchers or practitioners within that particular community. Since most international discourse communities will be using English as their lingua franca, this also means that oral contributions and self/other management in small groups is paramount. In particular, the ability to extend, stimulate, or otherwise contribute significantly to the discussion is a crucial socio-linguistic skill that can mark membership in, or a deep sense of belonging to, a group.
The raw English proficiency level needed to achieve this is, however, not the key factor. Rather, it is socio-cultural and interpersonal strategies carried out in English-language settings that are likely to serve as make-or-break factors in managing such discourses. This is an area that I focus up deeply with my own 4-6th year medical students who are taking a special English for Medical Purposes (EMP) elective course. This involves having them prepare answers to authentic questions from non-Japanese regarding the Japanese medical system. Each student is given two questions that they must respond to in some depth (these are given 1 week in advance so that they can carry out any necessary research). The students are then placed in groups of 4. Each time a student deals with a question, (s)he nominates one of the others to summarize the response while the other two are required to add a comment and/or a question. Then the next student takes over the role of initial respondent…
“…observers prescribe glib discussion strategies… that are little more than cheerleading slogans”
My students’ English proficiency ranges from basic competence to near-native while their clinical knowledge is close to equal. This is an activity for mature students, especially those with some general academic competency. Interestingly, however, it is not lack of raw English skill that interferes most with the progress of the discussion but rather certain socio-cultural, pragmatic, and interpersonal elements.
Often, observers prescribe glib discussion strategies to Japanese students that are little more than cheerleading slogans: ‘Just express your opinion,’ ‘Speak up!’  ‘Don’t be shy!‘. Instead of exhortations like these, let me describe 12 problematic areas and some of my responses/tactics to you.
‘We have to think about this more and more.’ ‘That’s a difficult question.’
 The former is the ultimate weak-ass, not commital response and deserves scorn for its wanton lack of intellectual or moral resolve. I don’t allow it. The latter is simply rarely true. The questions are usually not difficult. Rather, it’s posing the answer, solution, or response that is ‘difficult’. By claiming that the question is ‘difficult’ the respondent is making excuses for him/herself and placing the onus of demanding a substantial reply onto the question or questioner. I don’t encourage this response although, ‘That’s a good question. The answer is unclear/very complex’ or some such reply is more than welcome.
Commentary need not be an opinion. One can instead extend or further the discussion narrative by offering up a personal example or a story that further illustrates a point being made. This is a major chatting-over-drinks skill, one that Japanese often employ. But not so in discussions. My Japanese students often seem to think that the rhetoric must follow a type of question-answer-opinion mode, when in fact additive illustrations are often highly appreciated.
In Japan, being supportive of others’ endeavours is highly encouraged, often in the form of tiny formalized spatters of applause. This is fine for children’s activities but beyond high school the ritual automated mini-clapping offered to those who have completed a formalized speech turn simply looks juvenile. Instead, I encourage my students to show their appreciation and respect to others in the group by 1) listening closely and 2) following it up with a substantive comment or question that actively supports the initial speaker’s efforts. 
‘How did it impress you?’ ‘I felt the power of…’
Japanese students often feel compelled (invariably due to their teachers) to deliver some sort of pretentious heart-rending tear-jerking testimony upon hearing some innocuous description. For example, Koharu explains recent developments in governmental policy towards palliative care, and Takayuki’s follow-up comment is, ‘I felt the importance of new ideas and the importance of caring for the elderly through your speech.’ Yeah, sure. All from a 2 minute outline. I have no idea why teachers accept this as legitimate commentary. Often, it borders on mockery. 
Encouraging comments and questions rather than opinions; the purpose of summarizing
 Because of an often shallow grasp of the Asian aversion to personal conflict (often rendered as uncritical thinking or obedience to authority) Western teachers have long been exhorting their Japanese charges to ‘give their opinions’ to the extent where this is now echoed widely even by Japanese English teachers and forces students to conjure up ‘opinions’ on items or topics upon which they neither feel qualified nor see any social requirement to ‘express their opinion’. As a result, most such efforts are prosaic and dull (they remind me of most sports interviews). Requiring questions or comments from listeners is a much more productive means of extending a discussion. ‘Giving your opinion’ can easily be a conversation killer, particularly when it is not asked for nor required.
Summarization, too, is a valuable skill. No, it is not just ‘busy work’ requiring that a student take dictation notes. Rather, it forces participants to listen for gist, significance, connections and, in requiring them to verbalize the summary, also leads them to prioritize, organize, and make decisions about pertinence, inclusion, and exclusion — all crucial higher-order discussion skills.
Faulty premises and disagreements
Once, a visiting medical educator from the U.S. asked a group of our students if, ‘…you have choice about where you work upon graduation, because I’ve heard that in Japan a senior doctor assigns you somewhere so that you have no choice.’ Not wanting to contradict the educator’s (false) impression for the sake of maintaining ‘politeness’ our students murmured their agreement. This shocked those of us (Japanese and non-J) who were observing because it is blatantly untrue — and our students knew it.
This is very much an Asian thing — not wanting to disappoint an interlocutor by instead ‘agreeing’ with the sentiment of what that person seems to want to believe and thereby helping them to save face. (‘Is the Grand Hotel this way?’ ‘Yes.’ — even though the responder knows full well that it is in fact located in the other direction).
 In Q&A sessions, I’ve often seen Japanese presenters accept questions/comments based on faulty premises and, in doing so, inadvertently validating their legitimacy, following their socio-cultural proclivity for conflict avoidance. Instead, a repertoire of polite disagreement phrases can be used to pre-empt misunderstandings: ‘I think that’s based on a faulty premise.’ “Actually, that’s no longer true/that’s not entirely correct.’ ‘I think you may be misinformed’. “I think that may be based on an unfortunate/outdated stereotype’, can all be usefully deployed.
 Related to the notion that follow-up commentary need not represent an opinion is the fruitful habit of using commentary to add to the discussion, to convey information that probably should be included, or to repair statements that are in fact slightly (or totally) inaccurate. Out of politeness (again) Japanese speakers of English are loathe to do this as it threatens the face of the initial speaker. As a result, sometimes the most egregious falsehoods will be left unchallenged or tacitly accepted. No, this not imply face-threatening challenges, but can be implanted into the discussion in a more civil, indirect form: ‘I wonder how true X is?’ ‘I’m not so sure X is always the case.’ ‘I think we should remember/keep in mind that…’. Utilizing these strategies can add veracity to a discussion without alienating any one participant.
Starting strategies
Japanese people are often used to formalized speech events where roles and turns are set or order is established, often explicitly. Starting too quickly can appear to many Japanese to be pushy or blunt, even childish. As a result, there is a tendency for Japanese to hesitate at the start of small group discussions, taking time to read the air, trying to sense when it may be acceptable by all to advance the narrative. In international scenarios this can come off as being passive, unwilling to contribute, or even as wimpy/boring.
I therefore encourage the students assigned as initial respondents  to begin without hesitation or standing on ceremony: “I answered question number 23 – Why do….?
Japan vs. ‘foreign countries’
I remember watching Harvard-based celebrity academic ethics philosopher Michael Sandel discussing “What’s the right thing to do?” with a Japanese panel while on tour in Japan. Unfortunately, almost every Japanese commenter started with, ‘In Japan we think…‘ or ‘In Japanese culture…‘, as if Japan was ethically divorced from the rest of humanity. These people were confusing philosophical ethics with ethnography, moral prescription with cultural description. It killed any hope of enlightening ethical discussion and made for frustrating viewing.
There is a related tendency  in Japan to conflate all foreign countries together such that the predominant frame of reference becomes Japan vs. foreign countries. As a result, I make sure that 1) my students distinguish between those numerous foreign countries, regions, and cultures carefully, 2) do not automatically prescribe to the belief that if A is true of Japan, not A must be true of ‘foreigners’, and 3) do not assume to present the ‘Japanese perspective’ where it is unnecessary to the discussion or clearly applies only to some Japanese people.
‘I think the reason that it is done this way is because of…’
There is an annoying tendency for Japanese students of English to respond to questions with full lexical/grammatical content, starting with, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is...’/ This ultimately extends to cases such as: ‘So, why do most Japanese hospitals do X?’ ‘I think the reason that most Japanese hospitals do X is…’ –– all that preliminary verbal baggage which adds nothing to the commentary can frustrate participants. It is not ‘interactively friendly’ language — although it can buy time when one is unsure how to respond. Otherwise it is just ambient noise – and I therefore discourage my students from using it.
Learning from your own dissatisfaction
So, how do learners actually improve their English skills through small group discussions? I encourage them to look at the points at which they felt frustrated or unable to communicate satisfactorally. These are the things they should quickly review or study at home so that they’ll be prepared for similar future scenarios. Learners should make sure that they don’t suffer the same breakdown (grammatical, lexical, or otherwise) twice!
‘That’s all’
How do you end a semi-formalized sequence of speech (such as, say, a turn in a symposium)? In Japanese, the set phrase is, ‘ijo desu‘, which speakers often translate to, ‘That’s all’ (‘No more! I’m outta here!) or, even worse, ‘Finished‘. Let’s nip this in the bud: There is no decisive closing phrase in such cases in English and forcing one sounds contrived, even aggressive. Rather, the end of a prolonged turn is marked by using a resolving tone, often accompanied by a nod of the head or chin, and a protracted silence. Our students should be aware of this.
And so should teachers.

Mike Guest’s second novel, ‘The Aggrieved Parties’, can be seen here.

Mike Guest’s literary blog, ‘Honeyed Badger Feet’, can be found here.

Mike Guest’s invited post on the academic blog ‘Conference Inference’ can be seen here.


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

2 Responses to The art of belonging: Japanese culture and small group English discussions

  1. Very good points, Mike. A very useful article.
    Just one thing, perhaps a typo – the American professor you saw was surely Michael Sandel (not Sadler).

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