The dark side of intercultural communication

At 11pm at a Japanese ramen restaurant in Thaniya, Bangkok, a group of five middle-aged Japanese men and five young Thai women were dining right next to my table. It’s the kind of sight that is very common, if not expected, in this area. Thaniya Road in Sala Daeng is full of hostess bars and similar services exclusively catering for Japanese men, be they expats or sex tourists. The Japanese men next to my table were talking about the high quality of each of their companions, praising the bar owner for whom the women worked.

When I left the restaurant, I saw the same men smoking outside, while the women waited behind them. There were also two children, aged between 8 to 10, trying to sell bunches of roses to the smokers. Disturbed while enjoying his after-dinner cigarette, one of the men yelled at the children, “人生そんなに甘くないんだよ!ま、わかんねーか、ははは [Life is not that easy! Well, you don’t understand, do you? ha ha ha].” The children were showing no sign of discouragement. As I walked away glaring at the man, he was turning his back to the young flower sellers, as an indication ofNo more communication and get lost.”

I don’t know what he meant to say with his comment of “you don’t understand!” Was he referring to the children’s ability to understand Japanese or the general harshness of life? (If the latter, he’s clearly completely wrong). Either way, I found his comment disturbing but also demonstrative of a common phenomenon associated with intercultural communication. In an intercultural context where people assume that their language is not understood, they can potentially say something very hurtful or immoral, that they would not have otherwise said. They believe they can get away with it because their meanings won’t be understood, and hence they won’t risk a negative assessment of their personality or potential retaliation. The absence of a shared ‘language’ and ‘culture’ in intercultural contexts then becomes some kind of license to insult, without consequence. This is a false assumption, of course. Receivers of hurtful comments do very often understand them through other channels of communication, be it body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, just as we can very often understand warmth and friendliness of individuals, with whom we do not share a common language. The man’s comment was a regrettable example of this assumption, embedded in the immorality of his laughter at the vulnerable and his lack of concern for small children working on the street close to midnight.

I am not suggesting he should have bought the flowers, as this is generally considered as a factor that keeps child labour an attractive option for helpless or abusive adults. But several questions come to mind: Would he have acted the same manner if the children were Japanese or in the company of someone with Japanese proficiency who could defend them? Did the other men remain silent because they thought the kids didn’t understand Japanese or did not want to spoil the fun night with the women? The children, however, perfectly got the message – they are not wanted and treated like dirt – even without any proficiency in Japanese. Some forms of communication work perfectly well in the absence of a shared language.

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 - 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Sheyla Gallegos

    Thanks a lot Kimie for this vivid article.

  • Motoko Sugano

    Thank you Kimie-san for the post. It is truly embarrassing to witness the scene like this — condescending J-man shamelessly exhibiting arrogance. The sight that we want to avoid, I usually stop here. But Kimie-san’s article goes one/two maybe three steps further and consider it as a very good case of intercultural communication. Yes, it is not the words but how you say them that actually create meaning, we do often forget that!. I am not sure if the boy understands the man’s words or not, but certainly Kimi-san as an interlocutor does. I though that kind of relationship is interesting, too.

  • Akiko Kato

    I could imagine the similar things happen everywhere in Thaniya. It is highly possible that at least one of these five Japanese men can be a father. I wonder how he speakes his own child 😛 From linguistic point of view, obviously communication is made by a lot of components, words, tone, gestures… I remember reading an article about mother’s talk. New born infants are very sensitive to tone, face expressions. They detect if they are in safe situation or not mainly from these nonverbal communucation Actually, we, adults, do the same when we talk evan in a common language. But between two speakers with differnt language, nonverbal factors play more important roll in communication.

  • Lachlan Jackson

    Thanks Kimie for this thought-provoking post. Excellent! Mind if I use it in class?

  • Mira-chan

    I remember once, me and a friend of mine saw a british lady at college, but the weird thing was is that she was dressed in the full traditional emirati abaya. We stared at her for a bit then started talking about her like any other girls would do, we were like: She must be muslim, or married from some emirati guy here? Or she might just want to look emirati, but poor she fails cause she still has that white face. Then,suddenly, she looked at us and said: I am british, but married to an emirati guy. That was so embarresing because she figured that were debating about her from our body lang and from how we gazed at her haha.
    And yes that happens alot with me and with my forigen teachers at college, i use arabic whenever im annoyed to express that im just SO ANNOYED that you should not understand what im about to say, and they often get it haha.
    Thats a really good post, and that japanese should get a life because no matter what, he should not treat homeless kids this way.

  • khan

    What a moving post, thanks Kimie. I agree with your observations and analysis that having a commonly shared language is not absolutely necessary to understand each other. Silence is sometimes more deafening than noise depending on who, where, what and why.

    Heard melodies are sweat but those unheard are sweater. ( Grecian urn, Keats)


  • Thomas

    I remember when I was in Thailand a Japanese men told his friend 外人嫌い while they were starving at me.
    I reply to them 外国人は外国の国籍を有する者です。 it means in Thailand you are also 外人。
    They ran away …