The Language & Culture Effect-How People Change Across Languages


I had been in contact with a Japanese individual who was helping me transfer a concert ticket. As I wasn’t familiar with the ticket website, I sought her suggestions, and she kindly provided me with a guide. In my message to her, I expressed my gratitude:

“Thank you very much for the arrangement and suggestion! I wouldn’t have been able to sort it out without your help.”

She replied:

“No no no, it’s me who needs to say thanks to you for signing up on the website in advance and doing your own research.”

PS: All conversation was in Japanese.

I have to say, I barely did anything. I guess she just had to find something to say it in return to be polite. In an English conversation, this might come across as slightly odd, as some people may perceive it as sarcasm. However, I know she genuinely meant it. I’ve experienced similar situations while talking with Japanese individuals before.

Yesterday, I was at a knitting café, working on my own projects. Several Japanese women sat beside me, and I could imagine they were “housewives,” passing the time while waiting for their children and husbands to finish their daily work and studies. Their conversation covered a wide range of topics, from knitting techniques and current news to recent fashion trends and AI!

“We’re living in a fantastic time in history! We might soon witness an incredible future!” said by one lady enthusiastically.

The conversation itself was not really important, but what caught my attention was the absence of arguments. Regardless of who said anything, the reactions were always like this:

“Really?” (本当に?)
“Yes, yes!” (そう!そう!)
“Some people/situations are like that” (あるよね~)
“I understand!” (わかる、わかる!)

No one would say, “You’re right, but I feel/heard…”, “my friends found something differently” or even something like, “No, I don’t agree with you……”

You might argue that no one would be that direct while speaking in English either. But please trust me, I’ve heard my lovely Latino friend say similar things many times. I know she’s just sharing her opinion and not trying to be aggressive, and I’m no longer offended by it. In fact, I see it as a sign of friendship, and I appreciate her directness with me.

My husband and I have experienced similar situations, and it’s nearly impossible to have everyone agree on everything all the time. That’s why the conversation at the knitting café seemed very unrealistic—how could everyone agree with everything?!

Sometimes I ponder how Japanese people would respond to this. It must be challenging for them to adapt to such a substantial cultural gap, where the mindset may be, “I know I might not agree with you, but expressing it openly won’t be of any help.”

Your personality changes when you speak different languages

I believe my personality changes when I speak different languages. When I’m back in a Japanese or Taiwanese context for a while and then switch back to English, I find myself saying “sorry” all the time. It’s because in these languages and cultures, there is a constant awareness that you shouldn’t bother people. When we talk about “bothering,” it can refer to the tiniest things.

For example, entering an elevator after others, because they would have to wait for you even if it’s just a few seconds, prompts you to say “SORRY.” Or when you leave a restroom and see many people waiting in line, you apologize for taking a long time.

Having been away from Japan for a while, I had completely forgotten about this custom until I received numerous “SORRYs” in various situations where I didn’t feel bothered at all. Now I find myself saying it repeatedly:


su i ma sen/

I have definitely learned to be more direct in my European life. If someone asks me, “How do you feel about the food?” I would say, “Oh, well, I’m not a big fan of X. I don’t really like it,” instead of “This is not bad! I like it!” or staying silent.

When people ask me, “Where did you get your earrings? They look nice! Are they expensive?” I would say, “They’re from a Danish brand called Pilgrim, and they cost 38 Euro,” instead of “Last week, I was back in Sweden, celebrating my husband’s birthday, and I bought them at the airport, so the price is decent.”

Why do people speak like this in high-context cultures? It’s because we’re told not to offend others. We don’t know what price is considered “expensive or cheap” to the people we’re talking to, and we don’t want to brag. That’s why we have to provide some background information to imply that the purchase was reasonable, that we’re not bragging, and that we don’t want to surprise them with the price. (Who knows? Some people might feel that spending 38 Euro on a pair of earrings is not worth it or expensive!)

This is normal in that culture, but it becomes “inefficient” in my European life. I’ve repeated to myself a hundred times, “Be straightforward,” and I’m on my way there. Living in Europe has changed my personality to some extent or, more accurately, it has given me a different form of “confidence”.

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