Honne And Tatemae

If your language does not contain the ability to express the thought, can you think about it?  Can you even notice it?

Some languages are more efficient for certain thoughts.  Cree has 38 words that describe snow in its various manifestations.  A single word could require a paragraph in English to express the nuance.

Years ago, I was in Wemindji in northern Quebec and the economic director made an interesting point.  His son was at Trinity College in Port Hope Ontario and it was snowing there.  Daniel told me his son was having trouble communicating with his roommate about it. He was from Jamaica and had never seen snow. Not much commonality.

How many blind spots do we have because the language fails to permit the thought?  How would we overcome that?  Can a blind person describe green?

I recently saw the two Japanese words in the title and they are worthy.  They relate to a person and how the person truly is (Honne) and how they express themselves to the world. (Tatemae) 

In Japan, presentation of yourself socially according to the society’s standards is required and is quite defined.  As the result, there each is a social person that may not be the same as the person behind the facade.  I expect every culture has that difference, but maybe not so clearly presented.

  • Honne – The way things really are, and
  • Tatemae – The way things appear to be.

The contrast can be extended to success in life.

Knowing what is real and knowing what is facade is a crucial distinction.  Politicians present the facade.  If their tatemae is close to their honne we then have a rational way to decide if they are worthy of our vote.  If not?

The same in business.  Does the sales facade bear a resemblance to reality?  Does the brand still have value?  There are some manufacturers who enjoy a reputation earned decades ago, but who no longer deliver on their implied promise.  That ends badly for them, but usually not for a long time.

Without thinking about the contrast, between facade and reality, people make mistakes. If they believe the facade they can miss other important things. 

Consider this thought attributed to Al Capone.

“Do not mistake my kindness for weakness.  I am kind to everyone.  If you are unkind to me though, weakness is not what you will remember about me.”

When a language does not include a word that focuses your thought on a subject you may tend to ignore it.  You will need to consciously work at the understanding.  What is clear in Japanese is not intuitive in English.

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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. Contact: don@moneyfyi.com

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