Yuko Oyama

Professor Keefer

Writing Workshop II

August 1, 1998

 

Major Factors Affecting Communication Styles of American Children and

Japanese Children: the Analog Age and the Digital Age

 

It is widely known that children develop their language not only by an innate faculty but also through social interaction. Language, a medium of communication, is learned as a side effect of children's attempts to interact with others and learn about their world. In the process of language acquisition, children encounter various factors, which have great impacts on their communication styles. These factors vary with the passage of time. In this paper, I would like to examine major factors affecting communication styles of the children in the United States and Japan, both in the analog age and the digital age. First, I will compare communication styles of each country, and examine how maternal speech helps children develop culture-specific communication patterns. Next, I will predict how communication styles of American children and Japanese children will change in the twenty-first century and what will cause the transformation.

 

I begin by looking at maternal speech as one of the most important factors affecting children's language and their communication styles. It is consistently observed across cultures that caregivers, mainly mothers, provide explicit instruction in what to say and how to speak in daily activities and events. However, it is important to know that there are some differences in communication styles across cultures. In other words, culture-specific patterns of maternal speech have been observed in many different societies. Here, I would like to compare communication modes in the United States and Japan.

 

The distinctive communication features of English and Japanese are that the former is low-context and the latter is high-context. Hall defines "context" as follows:

 

"Context" is the information that surrounds an event and is inextricably bound up with the meaning of that event. The elements that combine to produce a given meaningÔçevents and contextÔçare in different proportions depending on the culture. It is thus possible to order the cultures of the world on a scale from high to low context (E. Hall and M. Hall 7).

 

The communication pattern in the United States is low-context communication, in which "the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code" (Hall, Beyond Culture 70). The communication styles are direct, explicit, logical, black and white, and attribute a higher status to verbal expression. Levine describes communication in the United States as leaving "little room for the cultivation of ambiguity. The dominant American temper calls for clear and direct communication. It expresses itself in such common injunctions, as 'Say what you mean,' 'Don't beat around the bush,' and 'Get to the point'" (Levine 28). These styles function better in an independence-oriented society like the United States, which has much greater ethnic diversity and places a much higher value on individualism.

 

In the United States, the rhetorical patterns can be characterized as "straight linear", running directly from topic to conclusion. This logic requires digital thinking. According to Bowers, digital thinking is linear, componential, and abstracting. It can deal only with what has been abstracted from context and made explicit, like the data of an event, the parts of the body or a machine, the events of a historical period (names, places, actions, and so forth) (Bowers 63-64).

 

In contrast, a high-context communication is one in which most of the information is already in persons, while very little is coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message (E. Hall and M. Hall 8). The communication styles are intuitive, indirect, and rely heavily on non-verbal behavior. These styles can work only in a homogeneous and "group-oriented" society like Japan. Morsbach says that both political isolation by the middle of the nineteenth century and geographic isolation as an island country greatly contributed to the existence of a homogeneous population with very distinctive behavioral preferences (Morsbach, 262-277). Kunihiro also writes:

 

No one would deny that present day Japan is more homogeneous than any other major country in the world… the members share a great many aspects of their daily life and consciousness. Thus, explanations through the medium of language often become unnecessary, and intuitive, non-verbal communication of the sort that develops among family members living under the same roof spreads throughout the society (Kunihiro 53).

 

The distrust of words among Japanese people dates back to the seventh or the eighth century. The concept of the ancient book and poetry is Kotodama. Koto has two meanings: koto for 'words' and koto for 'affair, matter.' The close association between the "word" and "affair, matter" referred to is indicative of the Japanese people's view of language. Language is not 'object' but 'affair, matter', an event where a sprit resides. Yet words themselves construct only a portion of social interaction, since they "live" when one speaks from the heart and infuses them with spirit. Consequently, words form only a part of sincere communication (Mayard 180). Haragei (hara Ôçbelly and gei Ôçsensitivity or subtleness) is also a Japanese popular non-verbal communication to negotiate without the use of direct words. Haragei means heart-to-heart communication or guessing inner thought of the other (Wolfgang 142). Ishin denshin (intuitive sense) is an additional referent for this preference. This involves communication using mental telepathy. Sasshi (surmise or guess) refers to Japanese way of communication trying to understand the real meaning of a message by guessing. This is essential to comprehending the communication in indirect fashion. These Japanese concepts indicate that communication in Japan relies heavily on non-verbal communication.

 

Regarding the rhetorical patterns of Japanese people, it can be characterized as "circular." In other words, Japanese people use analog thinking and go in circles before reaching a conclusion. Maynard says that Japanese writers present conclusions gradually (sometimes indirectly), often after giving extensive background information (Maynard 161). Unlike digital thinking, which is linear, analogue thinking involves relationships, context, redundancy, and memory. It also involves a tacit level of pattern recognition, such as how to know that another person's body language is to be interpreted as a friendly greeting (Bowers 64).

 

How does maternal speech help children acquire these culture-specific communication styles in the United States and Japan? I believe these two countries are worth comparing because they share two major characteristics of caregiver-child interaction. First, Japan and the United States are both 'child-centered' societies in the sense that considerable attention is devoted to caregiving. Another similarity is that mothers are usually the primary caregivers and main source of linguistic input for children (Morikawa, Shand, and Kosawa 237-256).

 

Despite these similarities, there are differences in cultural patterns in maternal speech of American mothers and Japanese mothers. The different level of reliance on verbal expression can be found in mothers' speech in each country. In the investigation of thirty Japanese and thirty American infants 3-4 months old interacting with their mothers, Caudill and Weinstein found that Japanese mothers talked to their children significantly less often than American mothers, and that Japanese children had significantly lower rate of "positive vocalization" than American children (Caudill and Weinstein 225-276). In their study conducted earlier, they concluded that Japanese mothers had more lulling (singing softly or making repetitive comforting noises) and physical touching of the infants, while American mothers stimulate their infants predominantly by talking to them (Morikawa, Shand, and Kowasa 239).

 

As far as the indirect communication mode of Japanese people are concerned, Azuma notes that American mothers were expected to use explicit and direct verbal commands, while Japanese mothers were expected to avoid such behaviors and to use indirect speech style (Azuma 153-169). In addition, Matsumori analyzed in her study the directive used by ten Japanese and ten American mothers interacting with their children, aged 3-6 years, and their responses to a set of hypothetical situations calling for directives. She concluded that American mothers tended to express their own feelings and opinions when reacting to socially disapproved behaviors, e.g., "I don't like the way you're speaking." In contrast, Japanese mothers tended to appeal to social norms in correcting misbehaviors, e.g., "Speaking that way to a grown-up won't do" (Matsumori 320-339). They are indirect in that they do not specify clearly what the child is supposed to do. In this way, Japanese children are hearing indirect imperatives since their early childhood. Furthermore, in Japan, where the emphasis is put on indirect style, it is important to be able to anticipate the needs of others, lest people will be forced to make a direct request. One might wonder how Japanese children learn to 'read minds' of other people in this way. The answer is that their mothers tell them directly what others people are thinking and feeling in various situations. They also frequently attribute feelings of pain to others, especially if the child is responsible but failed to notice or apologize for causing the pain. Attributing speech is one way Japanese mothers teach their children to be sensitive to others.

 

This communication style also provides children with explicit training in empathy which Japanese society emphasizes. Lebra explains the behavior as she describes Japan as an omoiyari (empathy) culture. Omoiyari means "the ability and willingness to feel what others are feeling, to vicariously experience the pleasure or pain they are undergoing" (Lebra 38-39). Japanese mothers provide lessons in how to guess what others are thinking and feeling even when their children have not spoken. It is consistent with very different communicative styles in Japan and in the United States that Japanese mothers used this strategy much more frequently than American mothers. In this way, American children develop their skill required in a low-context communication and Japanese children master the skill indispensable in a high-context communication.

 

Will communication styles of American children and Japanese children, mentioned so far, remain the same in the twenty-first century? Now, a social change is happening, which will greatly influence their communication. The world is shifting from the analog age into the digital age. Digital technologies have being applied to numerous tools ranging from digital phone, digital recording, digital TV, digital radio, digital video, digital camera, digital money, to digital copy machine. Communication is now in the process of digitization and the digital communication web is being built all over the world. This is an advanced global communication network, which carries information and ideas in the form of electronic impulses across a city or around the globe. With the unprecedented progress of computers, information is now transforming from printed style to digitized style. The Internet, which links tens of millions of computer users around the world, is the backbone of the current global computer network. The Internet service varies from E-mail, Network News, Telnet, Online Public Access Catalogue, On-line Shopping, FTP protocol, Gopher to WWW (World Wide Web). It is the WWW that is accelerating the growth of the Internet. This is the interactive navigation tool providing access to text, sound, picture and animation. The text, organized in HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) style, is accessible from any computers connected to the Internet. In the environment of WWW, a new virtual world, called cyberspace, is constructed by computers.

 

In the United States, the Clinton administration is promoting national resources for the "information superhighway", the term first coined by Vice President Gore 17 years ago. Al Gore is now developing the National Information Infrastructure (NII) -- a seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases, and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at users' fingertips. He cited the needs to bring the economic, health and educational benefits of the information revolution to all Americans and challenged his audience to connect every classroom, library, hospital and clinic to the NII by the year 2000 so that all Americans can benefit from the communications revolution. Here, the Internet is considered to be the prototype of the NII.

 

The Japanese have also long recognized the importance of information and communications to promoting national development. A 1994 government statement of the information age objectives emphasized the importance of "high performance info-communications" in Japanese national strategy as the country moves into the twenty-first century (Dizard 34).

 

By the end of the century, the Internet will link more than 100 million users in almost every country in the world using telephone lines and other off-the-shelf technologies (Dizard 13). The rapid growth of the Internet in our daily life is also providing a significant effect on the educational fields. Currently, in the United States, the NII project advocated by Vice President Gore is being linked closely with education. Multimedia education with the use of the Internet is being introduced into the educational field. The Clinton administration aims to create the educational environment, which is appropriate to develop techno-savvy children, who will become the leaders in the twenty-first century. Private companies as well are sponsoring the projects and contributing to the remarkable growth of the Internet integration in school.

 

In the educational field in Japan, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) are jointly promoting "100- School Networking Project." This is a pilot project, which provided 100 schools (elementary schools, junior high and senior high schools) with various kinds of computer and telecommunication equipment and software support necessary for networking to the participating schools. The ultimate goal of this project is to make all schools in Japan accessible to the Internet. The project aims to help students foster their creativity, express their own ideas effectively and think freely through improved access to domestic and international communication and information sources. Currently, servers and client computers, which are installed at participating schools throughout Japan, are connected to the Internet in order to provide an environment that permits collaborative learning with students in Japan and abroad through the use of the network. The software is also provided for enabling students to access and send their information to libraries and schools throughout the world. When these projects at the educational sites complete in the United States, Japan and the rest of the world, schools all over the world will be connected by the information network, which would provide children with opportunities to encounter various other cultures, and would create an educational site without a border.

 

Internet use by children at home is also gaining popularity. The boom in the number of children surfing the Internet is causing toy shops to strip their shelves of traditional stock to make room for new generation of computers and plug-and-play Internet access kits. One of the biggest attractions of the Internet for children is that it enables them to play games with friends, or opponents, anywhere in the world (Cox and Frean 7). Web sites designed for children are increasing rapidly. For example, 'Yahooligans!' is a popular Web directory for children. 'White House for Kids' is the site designed to introduce the president and the White House. 'Kids window' enables children around the world to obtain information on Japanese children. 'Netday 96' is the homepage connected to the elementary and middle schools in the United States.

 

Internet use by children both at school and at home will continue to expand. In fact, computers are becoming easier to use because of user-friendly development of Graphical User Interfaces (GUI) such as Windows 95. In addition, children are showing a greater interest in games on the Internet. In a way, parents encourage children to use the Internet. Children are being kept indoors and severely restricted their independent mobility because of increasing crimes and traffic accidents. Growing number of parents fear what will happen to them if they are allowed unsupervised play outside. These parents tend to lock away their daughters and sons and give them the screen to keep them quiet (Sanger 174).

 

My best conjuncture is that the Internet's permeation throughout children's educational and entertainment worlds will surely change communication styles of children on the both sides of the Pacific Ocean. I start by looking at the impacts on Japanese children.

 

First of all, communication styles in cyberspace, or in the digital world have some factors that may change the language of Japanese children. The Internet world is a digital space where digital information is exchanged. This world basically requires low-context communication. Context refers to the fact that when people communicate they take for granted how much the listener knows about the subject under discussion (E. Hall and M. Hall 158). As I mentioned earlier, low-context communications are characterized as direct, explicit, black and white, and attribute a higher status to verbal expression. This communication style is popular in the independence-oriented societies, where people use digital thinking with straight linear rhetorical pattern running directly from topic to conclusion.

 

I suppose the Internet world is basically low-context communication because of two main factors. First, cyberspace is a global community without a border. Since people from different cultural backgrounds are interacting in the shared environment, much information should be explicitly coded. Second, computer screen exists as a visible physical boundary separating people communicating with each other. That makes it very difficult to convey non-verbal messages, on which high-context communication relies heavily. Hall refers to non-verbal message as follows:

 

Some 80 to 90 percent of the significant features of a culture are reflected in its non-verbal messages. These are usually taken for granted and transmitted unconsciously. Nonverbal messages are highly situational in character. Furthermore, the meanings of such messages are unique to each culture and often are charged with emotion (E. Hall and M. Hall xvii).

 

There are various ways to classify non-verbal communication. Knapp categorizes as follows:

1)Body Motion or Kinetic Behavior: This typically includes gestures, movements of the body, limbs, hands, head, feet and legs, facial expressions (smiles), eye behavior (blinking, direction and length of gaze, and pupil dilation), and posture.

2)Physical Characteristics: This category includes physique or body shape, general attractiveness, body or breath odors, height, weight, hair,and skin color or tone.

3)Touching Behavior: Subcategories of touch behavior may include stroking, hitting, holding, guiding another's movements, and other, more specific instances.

4)Paralanguage: This includes voice qualities and vocalization. The former is such things as pitch range, pitch control, rhythm control, tempo, articulation control, resonance, glottis control, and vocal lip control. The latter includes vocal characterizers such as laughing, crying, sighing…snoring, stretching, and the like, vocal qualifiers such as intensity, pitch height, and extent, and vocal segregates such things as "uh-huh," and variants thereof.

5)Proxemics: This is generally considered to be the study of our use of perception of social and personal space.

6)Artifacts: Artifacts include the manipulation of objects with theinteracting persons that may act as nonverbal stimuli, such things as perfume, clothes, lipstick, eye glasses, …and the whole repertoire of falsies and "beauty" aids.

7)Environmental Factors: This includes the furniture, architectural style, interior, decorating, lighting conditions, smells, colors, temperature, additional noises or music, and the like, within which the interaction occurs (Knapp 70-76).

 

In cyberspace, it is difficult to pay attention to subtle non-verbal cues in conversation such as a slight tilt of the head, which Japanese people use to express negative reaction. This is partly because non-verbal interpersonal communication can be well conveyed in face-to-face interacting situation that takes place in the physically, not virtually, shared space. Furthermore, people from different cultures are interacting in cyberspace. The meanings of non-verbal expressions are mostly unique to each culture. Because they are taken for granted and function unconsciously in each culture, it is hard to understand them for the people from different cultures. Therefore, I presume that the more the Internet spreads among children, the less children depend on non-verbal communication and the more they use the direct and explicit expressions, which are essential in low-context communication.

 

There may be an argument that it is possible to comprehend non-verbal expression for example by Net-based videoconferencing. It is true that Internet videoconferencing enables us to look at the face of the people we are talking to, but even this state-of-the-art technology has the limitation to the non-verbal communication. For example, personal space is one of the non-verbal expressions. Hall says that each person has around him an invisible bubble of space, which expands and contracts depending on his relationship to those around him, his emotional state, his cultural background, and the activity he is performing (E. Hall and M. Hall 12). For instance, in the case of talking about a very confidential matter, the distance between a speaker and a listener tends to be closer in many cultures. Nevertheless, it is impossible to use space in this way as a non-verbal expression at on-line meeting.

 

The Internet as a learning tool would also change communication styles of Japanese children. Bowers notes that whatever else education is, it certainly is one of society's key vehicles of transmission of culture (Bowers vii). Language is a communication tool, which lies at the root of culture. Therefore, the changes taking place at the educational sites will have a great impact on children's communication styles. I suppose the use of the Internet at the educational sites amplifies individualism and autonomy, and promotes digital thinking of children. According to Bowers, education for the Information Age fosters an egocentric universe in which de-contextualized information is seen as the source of intellectual empowerment and connectedness among individuals (Bowers 78). In fact, communication in cyberspace separates a writer/sender from a reader/receiver. It is true that the Internet has the ability of interactive communication. However, a writer/sender and a reader/receiver exist in a highly privatized world. They do not stand in an immediate relationship that allows for simultaneously reciprocal communication, which is available in oral communication. In most cases, a writer sends a message toward an abstract audience. Thus, the nature of sending and receiving message tends to be isolated. Moreover, searching information from the abundant sites and organizing one's idea based on the information would be a self-directed learning, which will enhance autonomy of learners. Thus, communication in cyberspace amplifies an autonomous sense of individualism.

 

Children's engagement with the Internet for pleasure will also affect their language because play is an integral part of children's social interaction, through which children acquire their language. Similar to educational purpose, Internet use for pleasure will enhance individualism. The more children spend their time playing alone on the Internet, the less they play cooperatively with their friends. The screen-based and sedentary activity might make children socially isolated and see computers as a substitute human contact and friendship.

 

Logical and analytical thinking, required in low-context communication, will also be enhanced by the use of the Internet. One of the main objectives of Internet usage is to seek information. In order to retrieve information from the vast amount of information sites and to organize and interpret information, Internet users have to clarify their ideas and to be logical and analytical. The Internet's heavy use of English language would also promote Internet users to acquire the rhetoric of Americans, which is straight linear.

 

As the Internet spreads among children for either purpose of education or entertainment, children will develop individualism, autonomy, and logical and analytical thinking, all of which are the characteristics of low-context culture. In the digital age, especially communication of Japanese children would show a remarkable change. That is because the Japanese culture reinforces a mode of thinking that does not have the linear, componential and logical (digital) characteristics, but instead relies upon understanding through pattern recognition (Kikuchi 42-45). Indirect and intuitive Japanese communication styles require analog thinking and attribute a higher status to non-verbal communication. These styles will not work well in cyberspace.

 

Additionally, the Internet world will give children an opportunity to know other cultures and develop the global perspective. The Internet connects individuals and schools over long distances, both at home and abroad. Lai says that teachers and students will be able to easily exchange information such as data, pictures, tables, sentences and music across cultural and national boundaries (Lai 120). The homogeneity of Japanese society will be diluted to some extent. In order to communicate effectively with a global audience, the communication of Japanese children will shift to low-context direction.

 

The early sign of the change in communication patterns has already been seen in a very popular cartoon character, which comes right out and says what he is thinking. "Crayon Shinchan" is one of the most popular cartoons among Japanese children. "Shinchan" is a protagonist of the comic books, a weekly television cartoon, and movies. Despite the Japanese tradition to restraint in voicing opinions, Shinchan is a very outspoken and sometimes offensive preschooler. For instance, in one of the ' Crayon Shinchan' stories, Shinchan yells out to his mother, "Here comes the monster, the Wrinkled" (Usui 20). Although I do not mean such a rude language of Shinchan is exactly low-context communication, this type of protagonist would not have been accepted by Japanese people a decade ago when nobody had heard of the Internet. The straightforward speech style ignoring the conventional Japanese values indicates that the new generation of Japanese children born in the digital age is getting familiar with direct and explicit expressions that are used in low-context communication.

 

How will the Internet impact the children in the United States, where communication is low-context? Individualism is the psychological hallmark of American people. Privacy is highly valued, despite their open-mindedness. If writers and readers in cyberspace exist in a highly privatized world, and individualism is the concept that Japanese children learn from the Internet and alters their communication styles, one might assume that the Internet has no impact on American children.

 

Although earlier in this paper, I mentioned that cyberspace emphasizes basically low context communication, there are some exceptions. In a sense, the Internet world has the quality of high-context communication. The text on the World Wide Web is organized in the style called HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), the lingua franca for publishing hypertext on the Word Wide Web. The structure of conventional text on computer is linear because it is designed on the assumption that a computer user reads a text from the beginning to the end. On the other hand, HTML is non-linear because the most important capability of HTML is that it has flexibility to access or jump to other text, image, or sound by hyperlink. By clicking a button on the mouse, a user can access to another linked screen at one's own will. In cyberspace, non-verbal communication through graphic or sound is available. In communicating with people from high-context culture, low-context American children may be forced to adjust the level of contexting appropriate for high-context people. Thus, American children cannot always resort exclusively to low-context communication and will learn the skills required in high-context communication.

 

The Internet used for educational purpose also affects the communication styles of American children, though this may largely depend on how the Internet is integrated in the educational program at school. I suppose American children will learn cooperative, interactive and collaborative work among children in the world. Now, teachers emphasize working with the Internet in groups. For instance, the Internet provides an environment that permits joint classroom exercises, information exchange and network conferencing through the use of the network. The activities such as e-mail exchange with overseas schools, joint creation of stories and opinion interchange between students would offer the shared knowledge across cultures. Lai notes that communication networks such as the Internet open up a window to the world for students so that global cooperation becomes feasible (Lai 123). The use of the Internet has the potential to promote profitable social interaction through cooperation and to construct shared knowledge among students around the world. The digital age will dramatically reduce the global disparity and provide American children with positive interdependence. I do not intend to say that the United States will become a high-context culture and a group-oriented society like Japan. Individualism will remain one of the national characters of American people. However, I presume communication patterns of American children will shift to high-context communication.

 

Although the digital technology alone cannot change drastically communication of both countries, which have evolved over a long period of time, this technology will have great impacts on both Japanese and American children. In the analog age, communication patterns in the United States and Japan sustained opposing directions in terms of contexting. However, in the digital age in the twenty-first century, the Internet will play a significant role to loosen the traditional restraints on their languages and will reduce the disparity in the communication styles. Therefore, in 30 years from now, when most North American and Japanese children born in the mid- 1990s become parents, communication of Japanese children will surely shift toward low-context direction, and that of American children will move into high-context direction.

 

 

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"World Wide Web." <http://sala 0013.shimane-u.ac.jp/univ/www.html> (July 03,1998).

 

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