Reading the Air: Best Skill Working in Japan

Being a foreigner working in Japan, you might hear the phrase 空気が読めない ‘kuuki ga yomenai’ which translates to “a person who ‘cannot read the air.

Women are better at reading the air than men are in Japan, but everyone should understand what this means especially in a business setting. The way Japanese people communicate is very indirect, so what is said is not always what is meant. Similarly, what is not said has a meaning, you must ‘understand the atmosphere.’ 

Depending on what it is, whether it’s silence or a look such as a glance or a gaze, the message that is being conveyed will be different. It takes time to read the air since it is a trail-and-error process. Here are a few tips to understand this concept.

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What Does Reading the Air Mean?

The Worries of Japanese Companies

How to get Better at Reading the Air

What Does Reading the Air Mean?

Think of ‘reading the air’ as unspoken rules. It can be pouring sake for your colleague at the right time, avoiding an embarrassing subject, understanding “no” when you hear “I don’t know what others will think of this.”

It is about reading body language, having common sense, and reacting to the smallest hints of movement. In other words, it is “reading between the lines.” This does not apply to a work environment. People don’t necessarily learn how to read the air at school, but instead, it is learned through social interaction and acknowledgment over time. 

Many can be teased, have a difficult time making friends, or find a job because they lack social skills and interaction. When they do, they are more conscious of what other people think and feel. This results in Japanese patience and politeness.

Since Japan is a society where hierarchy is important, you must know how to position yourself when interacting with others. When do you use respectful language, and when do you use more casual language? Within the Japanese language, there are variations of respectfulness depending on who you are talking to senpai, a teacher, a friend, a family member, a child, etc.

For example, the verb taberu means to eat and, this is the dictionary form. It can be conjugated to taberu (informal), tabemasu (formal), or meshiagarimasu (honorific), among others. So, how do you know which one to use? By reading the air! You can find information about the other person before or you can wait for your colleagues to speak first.

The way you speak to someone also depends on your state and your relationship with them. With all this, it is also essential to have an understanding of the Japanese layers of culture.

The Worries of Japanese Companies

In a work environment, you should know how to speak to your boss, your colleagues, and your customers as well as when to speak and what to do. If you are unable to read the air well, then you may not be part of an important discussion or meeting. Your boss or manager may fear a mistake from you and would rather put you aside.

When looking for a leader, the boss usually observes the employer’s behaviors and who people turn to when there is a problem. Similarly, to be a good leader, you need to analyze your environment and not neglect the importance of indirect forms of communication

However, in an international setting, reading the air might be a bit difficult. Since this is mostly a cultural aspect of Japan, it might be hard for foreigners to understand what is meant as well as for Japanese people to explain an opinion clearly and directly. This can result in miscommunication, missteps, frustration, and sometimes a failure.

How to Get Better at Reading the Air

The only way to understand others is to learn about their culture and make mistakes. This is a trial and error process. If you misinterpret or missed an implicit message, then you will notice something is wrong and learn from the experience.

To avoid common mistakes, read about Japanese business etiquette!