International marriage: communication problems during the decision making process.

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.

The unexamined life is not worth living. Also, color coding helps.

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!)


3 thoughts on “International marriage: communication problems during the decision making process.

  1. seira says:

    I dunno, I have to admit to being confused… I’m not sure if the diagram and the example conversations were supposed to line up, but they didn’t at all… The diagram goes Neutral-> Considering -> Tentative No for Japanese Negative, but the conversation seemed to go Neutral-> Tentative Yes -> Considering -> No, which was very confusing). Also taking gender dynamics into consideration, more likely is the Japanese wife will subsume her own desires and agree to hamburgers to make her man happy but think in her head “I did have a craving for curry though…” (this sounds like I’m being stereotypical but I really do think it’s sadly true to life. This isn’t 100% of why I think that, but I translate otome games for my job and the protagonist in any given story will do something like that all. the. time. while acting as the “ideal Japanese woman” – I’ve never read a story about a girl doing the positive-reaction-polite-listening-then-BAM-surprise-no thing, to her boyfriend/husband. I think Japanese girls–and maybe Japanese people in general–do in fact do this a lot, but not in romantic relationships).

    I think the American pattern is pretty accurate, although I don’t know why you wouldn’t just answer “kinda thinking curry, but what did you have in mind?” from the start.

    Feel free to argue with me on this, and sorry if this comment is kinda critical – I really do enjoy this blog!

    I would also like to see some links to other places online talking about this phenomenon in order to read more about it, even if it’s just other anecdotal evidence!


  2. Jin Okubo says:

    Reblogged this on Jin Okubo and commented:
    One of my friends says that I’m too prickly and that’s why we tend to go this way when I talk to my wife about certain issues and we’re deciding it. This is a very good post. Thank you for doing it


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