I keep hearing news pundits, colleagues, and friends talking about their amazement that the Japanese are so “calm, cool, and collected” in responding to the tragic events from the past few days. Far be it from me to reduce this atrocity to cultural lesson #72. But this does point to a classic case of why emotional intelligence only takes us so far in understanding the internal states of people who come from different cultural backgrounds.

A few of the faulty assumptions I’ve heard over the last few days include:

1. They have amazing peace amidst all of this.
This is usually said in contrast to how Americans responded to Hurricane Katrina or Pakistanis to the earthquake there. I’m sure there are Japanese who are responding with a sense of inner peace. I’m sure there are Japanese who are freaking out…just as is true with any group of human beings in the midst of a crisis like this. For a culture that generally doesn’t display emotions nonverbally in the ways many of us do–we must beware of presuming we know how they’re dealing with this based upon the pictures we see on TV.

2. They just don’t express their affection.
Last night someone told me they had just listened to a report about a Japanese young person who traveled a couple days, and spent over $800 USD to get to their loved ones. When the individual finally arrived and found the family members were okay, there was no hugging and holding each other…just bowing. I admit, I’d be throwing myself on my loved ones in the midst of something like this but that’s how I’ve been socialized to express my affection. Just because they don’t express affection like I would doesn’t mean they aren’t expressing affection. The long journey in and of itself was a profound expression of love and concern.

3. They’re so cautious that they need us (N. Americans) to jump in and help them solve this problem.
This one scares me the most. Without question, we need to be involved in offering help which may well include problem-solving. But thinking they’re clueless because they solve problems differently is to underestimate the human capacity to survive not to mention the engineering, minds of the Japanese.

I don’t think the above assumptions are ill-intended. In fact, they largely stem from a desire to empathize with our fellow human beings and to make sense out of these devastating circumstances. But may we slow down our desire to make sense out of what we see occurring, do what we can to help, and learn from what the Japanese are doing to cope!


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