Written by Emma Wood, (Lewis & Clark College) Student Correspondent CET Japan, Spring 2018
From an early age American children are taught to speak up when it comes to their goals, opinions, and interests, and to do so without hesitation. As exhausting as a five-year-old screaming, “I’m going to be a fireman when I grow up” for the fifth time over an hour can be, American parents respond to this small, but mighty, voice with praise.
Living a life in America has effectively conditioned me to relish the idea of declaring my existence, my purpose, and my message to those surrounding me. And yet, when the majority of Americans are born and raised with this powerful notion of self expression, the result is not one powerful voice, but a deafening cacophony of competing cries. A principle that once was as simple as “be loud” transformed into “be heard above everyone else”. I too added to the chorus and found that I had little to no issue with this contest for sound.
… until I started studying abroad in Japan.
Japan takes a different approach to expression. Instead of the power of an individual voice, the focus is instead on the collective voice of the masses. Although, I had been educated on this cultural difference, there are times when I catch myself dominating conversations with my Japanese peers, and not quietly. Even if I am talking to only a few people, I notice those standing across the room will turn towards me when I speak. In a Japanese context, I might as well be screaming.
What has proved even more surprising is that my voice has not only become the loudest in the room, but everything I say is being not just heard in terms of sound, but truly listened to. Commentary that could easily be overlooked in America as white noise is now being contemplated. The opportunity to be heard that I and so many Americans had been looking for was hiding in the small island country of Japan.
A long sought after goal achieved; this in some ways could be interpreted as a success. Finally, I was no longer competing. Finally, I could hear my voice and my voice only. Finally, people cared about what I had to say. The reality however, is quite the opposite. My words have more power than they have ever had, but with everyone listening, I am slowly realizing that my voice is not always, in fact not usually, worth hearing All. The. Time.
Given that people are thinking about what I say and how I say it, I am feeling myself being trained to be more mindful in my approach to conversation. No longer do I feel the panic of getting left behind in terms of volume or passion, but instead feel the excitement of hearing what others might have to say.
Living in Japan, I realize the key to winning that eardrum-ringing battle of voices I brought with me from America, now seems very obvious. It was never a matter of being loud or saying everything with conviction. It was always a matter of, for once in our lives, shutting up.