This is something I’ve noticed when trying to make decisions with my husband. Even if the outcome of what we decided is the same, the subtle difference in use of negatives and positives can impact how we both walk away from the conversation.
I’d like to preface this by saying that it doesn’t apply to 100% of conversations for either of us, but just an observation of our natural patterns of speaking.
In many cases I believe Americans will initially use “no” or a neutral tone when trying to come to a decision. If they warm up to the idea during the course of the conversation, than it becomes a “yes”. If not, it remains “no”. The initial “no” is not intended as a complete rejection, but as a way to hear each other out on the matter.
Conversely, Japanese tend to start with a placeholder “yes” or a positive response, and continue on the conversation with positive feedback while listening to the other person’s idea. However, if a definite “yes” isn’t placed at the end of the conversation, it doesn’t necessarily mean the are fully onboard with the idea despite their previous positive approach. It’s sometimes left to the other person to understand that while they were attentively listening, they are not really interested in going forward.
I think that’s why as an American it feels like it takes longer than necessary to come to a decision in Japanese than in English.
Think about bar hopping with a group of mostly Japanese people vs. a group of mostly American people. Which one normally comes up with the next place to go quicker? Maybe it can take 15+ minutes to pick the next place with the Japanese group, but the Americans will take 2-3 minutes to make a choice.
I naturally want to say “no” and not make a commitment until I can hear more about the other person’s idea. As they explain everything, I’ll think more about whether it is something I’ll consider agreeing with in the end. This carries over into my Japanese sometimes; people probably think I’m being curt if I use the Japanese language with an American decision-making process.
I want to illustrate this with the classic “What do you want for dinner tonight, honey?” scenario with an “American” pattern and “Japanese” pattern:
Husband: What do you want for dinner?
Wife: I don’t know…why?
Husband: How about a hamburger?
Wife: Hmm…really? Where?
Husband: Near the station.
Wife: There’s hamburgers there? I don’t know…
Husband: Yeah a new place opened up. I want to check it out .
Wife: Oh… What’s it called?
Husband: It’s called Amazing Burger. They use aged beef and have craft beer.
Wife: That actually sounds good! I was kinda thinking curry, but that’s fine.
Husband: What do you want for dinner?
Wife: I’m cool with anything!
Husband: I was thinking of hamburgers..?
Wife: Oh that’s cool. Hamburgers are good.
Husband: Yeah! There’s this place near the station
Wife: There is? I didn’t know that.
Husband: It’s new… Called amazing burger.
Wife: Oh interesting.
Husband: They have aged beef and craft beer.
Wife: Oh that sounds nice, but I was actually thinking of getting curry…
The first one is an American style development that ended in agreement to the suggestion: a neutral response followed by apprehension then information gathering, with a decision ending with a positive statement when in agreement with the suggestion. The initial apprehension is explained by the Wife sorta jonesing for curry, but did not have her mind completely made up with what she wanted.
The second one is a Japanese style development with a rejection of the idea at the end: positive reaction and continued positive tone and agreement with the explanation, but ends actually with a vote “no” to going to the burger restaurant. Wife politely listened to the whole suggestion, but her heart was set on curry so she declines. A decision really has not been finalized in the course of the dialogue, and will continue on from there.
So what does this all mean? From what my husband and I have talked about, a Japanese person might feel that the “American” conversation pattern is pretty negative and a bit standoffish, but the “Japanese” conversation pattern sounds a bit wishy-washy to an American.
Long story short, trying to change my natural instinct to say “nah” when at I’m home has been a challenge. (But don’t forget my “nah” is also full of love and respect!)