Hiragana. Katakana. Kanji. Got them all down, sure. But can you read the air?
Reading The Air
Reading comes in all shapes and sizes, but we can generally agree that it’s a singular experience. You read a book, for instance, by yourself. Maybe you group read, where one person is reading out loud and everyone is listening. The non-readers’re probably either reading or listening, not doing both at the same time.
Don’t believe me? A good friend of mine who’s involved in music creation argues that when people listen to music with lyrics, they only focus on one part of the song—either the words or the melody. Sometimes it shifts, in the middle of the song, or even from second-to-second. But if you want someone to understand a song in its entirety on the first listen, people should be generally exposed to a part of the song with lyrics and no music and another part with just music and no lyrics. Think about how many songs you’ve listened to where after ten listens you finally hear the lyrics and realize it’s a lot sadder than you thought it would be. Or perhaps the opposite is true: you love the lyrics at a certain point in the song and never hear the complex bass chords below it. It’s not just because you’ve been singing along louder than the music; our brains just don’t process both.
The reason reading and listening are often paired is to get as much mental back-and-forth as possible. In fact, when words don’t match what you’re listening to, you tend to have higher-than-normal retention rates for the information. The more mental activity—comparing and contrasting—the better your brain processes information.
But wow have I strayed. Here’s the main idea: reading is typically done solo. But reading the air is a communal activity.
What is reading the air? By my count, 「空気を読む」means to understand what you should be doing in a given situation. Yet to know “what you should be doing” can often be a socially-contextually heavy activity. It’s why, when you first arrive in Japan, it seems like, without a word, everyone just knows where to be and what to do, as Eryk Salvaggio describes so completely. Eventually you pick up on these rhythms in the air, and you too know what you should be doing.
Or maybe you won’t. Japanese people who don’t know what to do in their own society are referred to as “KY”—空気読めない. But we don’t need to blow up and mythicize the Japanese way of doing things. “KY” has a rather straightforward translation: socially awkward.
When I came to Japan, I described myself as KY. My coworkers laughed, probably wondering how true is was. After all, there’s a difference between being quiet or shy and socially awkward. While it was a joke at the time, in truth I’m still learning how to read the Japanese air myself.
This series will chronicle my encounters with air reading in my daily life.
Story #1: The Lunch Table
For lunch at my schools, everyone sits together in a lunch room, with students each assigned seats. The seats change three times a year, which means that students get pretty comfortable talking to the same group of three to five students. In the middle school, each table has only a single grade. In the elementary school, the tables are a mix of older and younger kids. The teachers, however, switch tables regularly.
At my elementary school, I found myself at a table with a first grader, a second grader, a fourth grader, a fifth grader, and a sixth grader—pretty well rounded group. I tried to start up conversation with the sixth grader:
Me: 「まあ、ね…」I said jokingly.
The 5th grader next to me pulls me aside and looks me in the eyes.
The 6th grader starts smiling but remains silent.
Me:「まあ、たしか、[The 6th grader sitting in front of me]。」
5th and 6th: 「正解！」
It was actually the first time I’ve been told on the spot to read the air. I think it’s probably because they’re kids that they could be so upfront about it. Adults would probably just laugh or casually instruct me with exactly what I should be doing.
In this case, it was easy to figure out what I should be saying. In fact, I knew from the get-go what to say. It’s what I’d say in America. It’s like when your son or daughter asks you “who’s your favorite?” If there’s only one, you tell them they are. If there’s two, you say either “I can’t decide” or “I love you both equally” no matter which one you love more. But you know what you should be saying.
Sometimes the air in America and Japan isn’t as different as we’re made to believe.