Oct 9, 2011

Reading the Air

There are expressions that can't be easily translated into other languages, because these expressions are so deeply imbedded in their specific cultural context. "空気を読む (kuki wo yomu)" is one such example.

If I try to translate it into English directly, it would be something like "reading the air". In this context "the air" refers to the unspoken thoughts or feelings among any group of people. "The air" isn't articulated as such but it's implicitly understood that people should obey implicit "the air" by trying to work out what everyone else is thinking and felling and thereby not go against the unspoken consensus.

Although Japanese people share the same culture (to be more exact, of course, there are varieties of cultures in Japan), they can't "read the air" perfectly, because it should be able to be understood without words. Those people who can't "read the air" well are sometimes criticized as being "空気を読めない人 (kuki wo yomenai hito)".

I don't like to "read the air" and I always try to talk about, and do, those things which I really want to talk about and do. But because I am only such Japanese person living in Japanese society, I sometimes find myself unthinkingly "reading the air" and obeying "the air" unconsciously.

Some of my younger colleagues have confessed to me the difficulty they have had trying to "read the air". I always tell them that they don't have to "read the air". After all, no one can perfectly "read the air", because it's implicit. I refused to read "the air" and have gone ahead and and done what I have wanted to do and in this way have been able to survive in Japanese society.

"Reading the air" has many detrimental effects. For example in a business meeting participants try to work out the thoughts and feelings of others without asking directly ("read the air"). They won't give their own opinion for fear of going against "the air". As a result, we can't reach a truly creative conclusion at such business meetings, because we don't have any "real" discussion.

Steve Jobs said, "Stay hungry, stay foolish." in the end of the speech he gave at Stanford University.

These words are really suggestive and can be interpreted in many ways. I interpret them as an admonition to think broadly and radically without any prejudice. This attitude is very far from "reading the air".

I want to say to the young people of Japan, "Don't read the air. Stay foolish. Be free."


  1. I suppose the closest you can get in English is 'reading between the lines'.
    When someone says something but there is a meaning underneath their words that you're just supposed to .... know.

    When I'm talking to Japanese people on Skype, I've seen them get angry at each other for being "KY". XD But in truth, I'm the same.

  2. I'm trying to be "KY", even if someone is angry at me, because I believe that nothing will come out of "reading the air".