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Assertion and Assumptions


No Offense, None Taken


In business cultures like Japan that have strong Confucian tendencies, a great deal of importance is placed on maintaining harmony, or at least the appearance of harmony when dealing with other people. And as local language reflects local culture, the Japanese language has developed in a way that allows many indirect vague statements that help ensure harmony is maintained. Phrases like, “no offense” (said in English after direct criticism, for instance) and “none taken” (spoken reply) do not exist in Japan because they accompany statements that could cause someone to lose face and destroy the trust that has been created by carefully avoiding giving and taking personal offense.

In Socratic cultures, on the other hand, trust is typically built by assertively expressing one's opinions in an honest and frank manner so that business counterparts can avoid any misunderstandings or feelings of deception. Hence direct statements, even challenging statements are not considered rude as long as the challenges are not ad hominem. This Latin phrase, ad hominem, can be directly translated as “to the person.” Emotional reactions that attack a person’s motives or character, rather than merely ideas or statements, are considered rude and unacceptable even in Socratic cultures. In other words, to avoid being rude, we should avoid ad hominem remarks. This worldview assumes a basic core principle in Socratic thinking: a person and a person’s ideas are separate. This is not, however, a principle of Confucian thinking.

To make the difference clear, please imagine the following situation. At the end of a 30-minute presentation, the presenter asks the audience if there are any questions. He is a senior expert in his field. After a few expressions of gratitude and some simple questions from the audience, one Japanese member of that audience bravely asks the presenter the question that is on everyone’s minds. It is a simple question requiring a simple yes or no answer. The presenter then very carefully explains to the person who asked the question a long list of background information on the topic and gives a few examples that sincerely look at the issue from both sides. Finally, when the presenter appears to have covered everything on the topic, he asks the questioner if the answer is okay. The questioner says, “yes,” and then thanks the presenter.

Many of the Western audience members are surprised and confused because the presenter actually never clearly said, “yes” or “no.” As the presenter is about to take another question, one of the young Western members interrupts and says, “Sorry, but I don’t really understand. You didn’t say if it is okay or not. No offense, but the answer was not clear, at least not to me.”

The initial questioner, realizing that he has created a conflict, lowers his head slightly. He too realized that the answer was not clear, but asking the same question at this point would mean criticizing the presenter’s response and would cause the presenter to lose face. Even if someone says, “no offense,” it is still offensive, because the presenter explained the answer for more than five minutes and even gave examples. As the person who caused this conflict, the initial questioner is now hoping to save his own face and escape the room as soon as the session ends. He knows that he must first wait until at least this so-called “no offense” question has been answered.

The presenter in this situation is actually a Japanese man with more than 20 years’ experience living and working in Western cultures. Over the years he has developed the ability to assertively navigate between both Confucian and Socratic styles. He smiles and says, “None taken” in the direction of the Western member who asked for clarification. He goes on to apologize for not being clear with his answer and then tells the audience members that the answer is yes, but reminds everyone that there are exceptions to be kept in mind.

The presenter’s reaction is somewhat surprising and confusing for the Japanese questioner. Withholding opinions that are critical is a way for him to show respect for the presenter, the relationship, and for himself. He understands that he still has the mutually respectful option to continue the discussion one-on-one after the presentation if he is not completely satisfied with the response.

In Confucian cultures, saving face is valued far more than the ability to assertively express opinions. A person and an idea are not viewed as separate: they are one and the same. Public criticism of another person’s idea is equal to criticism of the person. Phrases like, “no offense” and “none taken,” therefore, do not exist in Japanese. If the first phrase existed, the second would most certainly not, because all criticisms are offensive as they are all taken as direct criticisms of the person.


No Offense, None Taken


日本のように孔子的(儒教的)価値観の傾向が強い国では、ビジネス関係においても、和を保つこと、少なくとも和を保っているように見せかけることがかなり重要になります。そして言語にはその国の文化が反映されるため、日本語は、和を保つための間接的であいまいな言い回しを許容する形で発展してきました。例えば英語では、誰かを直接的に批判した後で、「No offence(悪気があって言うのではありませんよ)」と言うことがあります。言われた方は、「None taken(悪気があるとは思いませんから大丈夫です)」と答えます。しかし、こういったやり取りは日本には存在しません。なぜならこのやり取りには、相手の面目を潰したり、個人攻撃を行ったり受けたりすることを注意深く避けることで培ってきた信頼関係を壊す可能性のある言葉が発せられることが前提になるからです。

一方、ソクラテス的価値観に基づく文化においては、自分の意見を正直かつ率直に述べることで信頼を築いていくのが一般的です。はっきりとものを言うことで、取引相手との間に誤解や、騙されたという気持ちが生じることを防ぎます。そのため、直接的な意見の表明は、それが挑発的なものであったとしても、「ad hominem」(ラテン語。直訳すると「個人攻撃」)でない限り無礼とは見なされません。しかし、その人の考えや意見だけでなく、意図や性格までを攻撃するような感情的な態度をとることは、ソクラテス的文化においてさえ無礼で受け入れがたいと見なされます。だから、無礼にならないようにするには、「ad hominem」的な発言を避けなくてはなりません。この世界観は、個人とその考えは全く別物だという、ソクラテス的思考の基本原則を前提としています。一方で、儒教的思考の原則はこれとは全く異なっています。








Graham Lenz