Dealing with Japanese Honne and Tatemae in Workplace


Tatemae is crucial in Japanese business etiquette. If you have heard a little bit of tatemae, you may wonder why lying is good. But, is tatemae equal to lying?


This article will explain what honne and tatemae are and how to deal with them, especially in the workplace.


Private and Public Face

Honne refers to true self or genuine feeling. 本 means true, and 音 means sound, so it literally means true sound. In Japanese culture, someone’s true feelings are often kept private between themself and their closest circle. The purpose of this behavior is to maintain harmony in Japan’s group-oriented society.


Instead of showing their real feelings, Japanese people usually use tatemae in public. Tatemae (建前) literally means built in front. It refers to the facade people put in front of others to please them or avoid confrontation. Tatemae usually contrasts with someone’s true feelings.

Private and public face


Examples of honne and tatemae:

  • A coworker asks if there are any questions by the end of a meeting with one minute left. It could be a facade because they actually want to end it immediately.

  • A colleague invited you to hang out together. If there’s no follow-up action, they might say that out of politeness and didn’t mean that invitation.

  • A stranger said that your Japanese is good, or in Japanese, nihongo jouzu desu ne. It’s a running joke among foreigners in Japan that if the Japanese person truly means that (honne), they will ask how long you have lived in Japan instead of praising you (tatemae).


Of course, these examples are not always the exact situation. To distinguish honne and tatemae, you need to read the room well, and it may take time due to language barriers or culture gaps.


Have you ever encountered a tatemae situation?


Why do Japanese people use tatemae?

Let’s look at Japanese society first. Japan is a group-oriented country where everyone should prioritize the public over personal benefits and convenience. People maintain their image by being selfless and taking care of others first. Confronting others, showing aggression, and being rude will make someone seem mannerless and uneducated.


Japanese people are very good at restraining themselves to not causing any inconvenience or harm to people around them, even as a kid. There are many instances of this behavior as it runs deep in their manner.

  • People who catch the flu wear masks by themselves to not spread the illness to others.

  • Talking quietly in trains or not talking at all to not disturb others.

  • Cleaning after themselves in public places, such as restrooms and restaurants, because other people will use it after.

  • Saying or doing something to keep the situation pleasant and avoid hurting someone’s feelings.


The last example is what’s called tatemae. People say or do things that they think are appropriate. Instead of being totally honest and causing a conflict, they prefer to give formal responses. Looking at its background, we will understand that tatemae is used for other people’s sake. It’s never out of malice or to be sarcastic.


You may think tatemae as superficial, but it’s everyone being civil with each other. It takes some time for Japanese people to feel close enough to open up and tell you honne. So don’t worry, you will be able to find Japanese friends with deep and meaningful connections.


Does using tatemae mean telling a lie?

In some sense, tatemae can be seen as a lie because people said or did things they didn’t mean. However, telling tatemae only exists in Japan or that Japanese people lie a lot is wrong.


Honne and tatemae are manners. People don’t act the same in every situation. You can’t treat your friends and parents equally. Your speaking style differs when you give public speeches and talk with your lover.


Tatemae may seem different because it is tied to Japan’s indirect communication style. Japanese people don’t straightforwardly express themselves. They thread between lines and leave some things unsaid. There is more information in their facial expressions, tones, gestures, and body language.


Here’s an example. When you make a mistake in your sentence, a Japanese person may still praise your Japanese skill. Unless you ask them to correct you, they won’t tell.


Don’t get them wrong. Japanese people are often too polite to point out your mistakes. They don’t want to embarrass you. Besides, praise will make you feel good. You think your Japanese has improved, and you are encouraged to keep learning.


Tatemae in workplace

Tatemae is inevitable in Japanese workplaces. Many Japanese companies, especially the traditional ones, have a strict hierarchy and strong seniority. Employees are expected to obey their superiors and treat them with respect.


Traditional Japanese companies have strict business etiquette


The social obligation to be respectful doubled with the non-confrontational nature makes employees rarely speak their minds. They keep their inconveniences to themselves to maintain harmony between colleagues.


Tatemae in the office is considered advantageous by some people. The jobs can be done without personal emotional interruption. People rarely lash out. Everyone is being kind, considerate, and willing to cooperate.


Just like it’s not necessarily unique to Japanese society, tatemae is also common in the workplace. Employees worldwide, no matter their country or culture, must want to be on their boss’s good side. They would also prefer good relationships with workmates and colleagues because the jobs will be much more doable in a peaceful work environment.


How to deal with honne and tatemae?

Learning a new language and culture takes some time, but it will make your stay in Japan much more comfortable. Here are some tips on how to deal with honne and tatemae.


1. Don’t overthink

After reading more information on this topic, you may feel conscious about what your Japanese coworkers/friends did. Were their praises just white lies? Were their invitations just small talks? However, second-guessing all of them won’t do you any good.


Don’t over analyze every situation because they all come from good intentions, whether honne or tatemae. Try to reciprocate their gesture similarly. You will naturally understand how to distinguish honne and tatemae with time.

2. Learn to read the room

Kuuki wo yomu (場所の空気を読む) is a Japanese phrase for reading the air or atmosphere. Japanese people are masters of taking silent social cues. To understand your surroundings better, learn to read the situation as a Japanese person does. Learning body language will also help.


3. Use tatemae to your advantage

Using tatemae correctly will bring you great social life and a thriving career. There are a few simple things you can apply daily, such as:

  • When talking with someone, show that you are listening to them by nodding and using aizuchi. The examples of aizuchi are はい, へえ, うん, そうか, and many more.

  • Tone down your bluntness. Being straightforward seems more effective, but that’s not how the Japanese communicate. If you prefer to be direct, you can include cushion words to make it sound softer.

4. Don’t take tatemae personally and force people to speak honne with you

It can be frustrating if people keep being professional while you want to be their friend. However, forcing them will only push them away. Be patient and wait until you know each other better!


Honne and tatemae aren’t that difficult to adapt to. These concepts are manners and exist in other cultures, even if they don’t have the terms. You may need some time to get used to it, but you will be fine. Even some Japanese can’t distinguish them, so they just take all of it positively.

 

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