The Messy Job Interview
Almost twenty years ago I interviewed for a freelance position with a training company. The interviewer, a fellow American, was a capable, savvy interculturalist. We arranged to meet at her home office, a short train ride away from my home. She picked me up at the station in a nondescript two-door sedan that I’m pretty sure was a Toyota; what I remember for sure is that her car made a positive impression on me because it was devoid of pretense, and I took it as a good omen that we’d get along swimmingly.
Then I got in her car.
It was filled to the brim with an assortment of candy wrappers, food containers, empty paper cups, notebooks, paperwork, and other miscellaneous items, all of which I pretended not to notice. After the initial shock wore off, I settled in and convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal, while part of me secretly admired her for unabashedly owning that mess.
Stating the obvious, she was in a power position, so in a practical sense her messiness didn’t matter; I was there to impress her, not her me.
To her credit, she apologized for the mess but absolutely didn’t mean it. I waved it off and said something like, “No worries, you should see my car,” a polite lie, equally insincere. It was not my place, nor was it to my benefit, to rock the boat. I needed work and this nice, messy lady was in a position to help me. Still, I couldn’t wait to see her office.
And it didn’t disappoint!
A dramatization of the interviewer’s desk based on a random internet stock photo.
Sitting eye-deep among towering skyscrapers of stacked papers, boxes, and books, we engaged in ritual chit-chat before getting to my pitch. To my surprise and delight, the messy ambiance of the room had a weirdly calming effect and it put me in a zone. With an American audience of one, I relaxed and told my story. The luck of the Irish was with me, and I impressed enough to graduate to the next phase of the interview, at which time my interviewer provided an overview of the company’s training material.
As she went through it, she urged me to hang my personal stories on the content and to “just be yourself.” This was music to my ears, as I am damn good at just being myself.
She also highlighted topics to avoid, the good old trifecta of workplace taboos: politics, religion, and sex. So far so good.
Then she said something I never expected to hear: “And you should never, ever discuss honne-tatemae because Americans will interpret it to mean that the Japanese are liars.”
I couldn’t have disagreed with her more, but that battle would remain in my head. There was no need to rock this boat either.
What Is Honne-Tatemae?
Anyone familiar with Japan has heard of honne-tatemae. For those who haven’t, it is a pairing of two Japanese words often translated as “one’s true feelings” (=honne) versus “the truth for public consumption” (=tatemae). This particular expression acknowledges and articulates an unwritten cultural rule in Japan that regulates what is appropriate to say in any given situation versus “one’s true feelings.” This expression is, in essence, an open admission by Japanese culture that people’s words and true feelings don’t always match. Shocking, I know.
A non-Japanese friend who lives in Japan says he can’t stand tatemae and believes it is unhealthy. I agree that too much tatemae is indeed unhealthy. But just for fun, let’s imagine the opposite extreme, a world completely devoid of tatemae, where people blurt out everything on their minds without thought or empathy for others’ feelings. That doesn’t sound at all healthy to me either.
Like most things in life, honne-tatemae is about balance and context. When socializing with good friends, the American in me prefers to keep tatemae to a minimum. On the other hand, in a public setting, tatemae can be a good thing if practiced judiciously. Another friend familiar with Japan says to think of tatemae as “diplomacy.” That’s as good a characterization as I’ve heard.
Personally, I find the frankness of my American compatriots refreshing, but I never lose sight of the fact that they too practice tatemae when it suits their purposes, even if they don’t want to admit it.
In my experience dealing with Japan for over four decades, more often than not, tatemae has been practiced with good intentions—to keep the harmony, put a positive spin on a bad situation, help someone avoid embarrassment, or protect a loved one. By implication, it also means that lots of roads have gotten paved to hell, but that goes for any culture.
Not everyone agrees with my take on honne-tatemae. Some might say it is too forgiving. Fair enough, each person’s take is highly subjective. For those who have a darker view of honne-tatemae, I would only remind them that no culture, certainly not Japan, has a monopoly on it. We all play the honne-tatemae game when the situation calls for it.
Whatever one’s take on the concept—positive, negative or neutral—understanding the dynamics of honne-tatemae is essential for effective communication with the Japanese, specifically for learning the all-important skill of “reading the air” and between the lines.
The irony of that fateful interview almost two decades ago is that the interviewer and interviewee, both Americans, had tatemae on full display while we danced around the endearing elephant in the room—the interviewer’s unabashed messiness. The dance came so naturally that we weren’t even conscious of it, evidence that honne-tatemae is alive and well in American culture—even if we pretend it isn’t.
Is Honne-Tatemae a Taboo Cross-Cultural Topic?
My clients are fully-grown adults. They deserve my respect. They deserve to have information that will enhance their ability to effectively communicate with Japanese friends, colleagues and loved ones. Professional educators in my field should know how to explain concepts like honne-tatemae without casting cross-cultural aspersions, and we should trust that clients will know what to do with that information.
By understanding the honne-tatemae dynamic, non-Japanese are better equipped to forge deeper bonds with Japanese counterparts and improve communication in the process. This is reason enough to put it on the table for discussion.
What do you think?
Copyright © 2019 Tim Sullivan