The daily dilemmas of social interaction are agonising at the best of times.
Are they telling the truth?
Do they like me?
Have I hurt their feelings?
But this complexity is magnified in Japanese culture where it has been formalised into a pair of opposing concepts that describe this social reality perfectly:
Honne (“true sound”) is what is really thought, or said privately while Tatemae (or “facade”) is its opposite, the “white lie” that avoids hurting someone’s feelings
Much like chess, the Japanese are always one move ahead of the game, being conscious of their responses to questions, giving as vague an answer as possible – keeping their opponent on their toes. Rude or cowardly? Neither. This elaborate fence-sitting is much more acceptable than being on the defensive or being brutally honest – that’s a big no-no!
Westerners may view this as being two-faced or hypocritical but in Japan it is something that is used daily and is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, it’s considered proper social etiquette to be able to use Honne and Tatemae to keep the harmony of the situation. To successfully integrate into Japanese society, you have to be culturally aware of the situation you’re in: when Honne should be hidden, and Tatemae used.
Westerners trying to figure out when an invitation or compliment is honne or tatemae can be daunting, even overwhelming.
But it can also be convenient.
The dinner party invite-from-hell? Use the tatemae on the would-be host, and keep the honne to yourself… avoiding the excruciating evening all together.
For a country like Japan that is so populated, it’s important that society works well and in harmony – so taking a formal response can often be easier than saying what you really think. It’s not lying. Best to keep the group mentality than stand out from the crowd, or step on someone else’s toes.
So, if you’re planning on visiting Japan, it’s a good idea to know your genmai from your gyoza, as well as your Tatemae from your Honne.
…But can you ever be totally sure?!