College Life Planning Class 7

What do we mean by “culture”?

In this week’s class, we will talk about intercultural communication. First of all, let’s look at what we mean by “culture.” For instance, if I say “American culture,” what comes to mind? Maybe the Statue of Liberty or McDonald’s? How about “Italian culture”? Pizza, pasta, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa? How about Japanese culture? Sushi, sumo, and ninjas, perhaps?

In a book titled “Different Realities,” the authors define culture as follows:

Many people think of culture as things like Kabuki or Ikebana. This book looks at culture more broadly as the things that members of a group share in common. Using this definition, culture includes everything from language and customs to values and communication styles. We can talk about Japanese values or communication style and compare them with Chinese or Turkish values and communication styles, for example. Or, we can talk about comparing Kansai culture with Kanto culture, or look at male-female communication differences.

(from Shaules, J. & Abe, J. Different Realities. Nan’un-do.)

One important thing to remember is that culture is like an iceberg. This means that we tend to focus on what we can see, hear, and touch, but we should also try to see something that is hidden and invisible, such as beliefs, values, or way of life. In other words, instead of looking only at the tip of the iceberg, we should also try to think about what is at the bottom of the iceberg.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. In Japanese, people use honorific language (敬語) for people who are older. For instance, in high school, I think most of you used honorific language for sempai (senior) students, even if they were just one year older than you. Some people from outside Japan finds this a bit strange.

So “people use honorific language for people who are older” is the tip of the iceberg. Can you think of what is at the bottom of it? What kinds of values or beliefs are underlying the special language for older people? We could argue that the influence of Confucian (儒教) ideas and respect for older people can be found in the use of honorific language.

Let’s look at another example. Some international students are shocked that Japanese students rarely speak out during classes. In most Western countries, students often speak out, without being called on by teachers. Based on this, some international students may think that Japanese students are passive, or maybe not interested in learning.

However, once again, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and we should try to think more deeply about the reason. Can you think of what is at the bottom of the iceberg? Why do most Japanese students seem reluctant to speak out during classes?

One reason may be respect for older people and authority. Another reason may be group-oriented culture of Japan, as exemplified by the saying “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る杭は打たれる).

So an important lesson here is that when we meet someone from different culture, we tend to focus on what we can see, hear, and touch. However, if we are concerned too much about the tip of the iceberg, we might get confused, frustrated, or even angry, because we cannot understand why some people act like the way they do.

Sometimes we need to think deeply about why people from certain culture behave in a certain way. Thinking about what is at the bottom of the iceberg is the key to successful intercultural communication.

Critical Incidents

In order for intercultural communication to be successful, we need to respect actions and values of people from other cultures, and try to think deeply about what is at the bottom of the iceberg. However, intercultural communication, of course, is not always successful. Sometimes people get confused due to cultural differences.

Perhaps you may have heard of several embarrassing stories involving cultural differences. In technical terms, these stories are called “critical incidents.” Critical incidents are defined as situations that cause confusion resulting from cultural differences, for at least one of the people involved.

Now let’s look at one example of critical incidents:

Japanese and American Cultures — Eating in Class —

Junji Edo has just arrived from Japan to begin working on his degree at an American university. On Mondays Junji was always very busy. He had classes all day and hardly had any time for lunch. One day he showed up at his history class a couple minutes before it started and told one of his classmates, Julianne, that he was really busy all morning and didn’t have time for lunch. The bell rang and the teacher came into the class. Julianne opened her backpack and took out a small bag of potato chips and a can of soda and gave them to Junji. Junji was very surprised and embarrassed. He whispered thank you to his friend and refused the food. Junji was even more bewildered when Julianne took another bag of potato chips and started eating them in class. To Junji’s amazement, the teacher did not make any comments on Julianne’s behavior and proceeded with the class as usual.

Did you understand what happened in this story? What was the basic cross-cultural misunderstanding?

Now, I’d like you to answer the following questions regarding the above passage.

  1. Why did Junji act the way he did?
    A) Junji was only trying to make conversation, and he felt embarrassed that Julianne thought he was asking for food.
    B) Junji was not used to people sharing food with him.
    C) Junji considered eating in class disrespectful towards the teacher.
  1. What attitudes or values appear to be important to Junji? Do you believe that most Japanese share the same attitudes and values?
    A) In Japan, people don’t eat in inappropriate public places.
    B) In Japan, eating in the class is impolite and shows disrespect towards a teacher.
    C) In Japan, acquaintances don’t share food.
  1. Why do you think Julianne behaved the way she did?
    A) Julianne felt obligated to share her food with Junji.
    B) Julianne always eats in class.
    C) Julianne realized that Junji was hungry and was willing to share her food with him.
  1. What attitudes or values appear to be important in American society based on Julianne and the teacher’s behavior?
    A) In the United States, having a snack during a class does not mean that students do not respect their teacher.
    B) In the United States, it is considered rude not to share food with the people around you.
    C) In the United States, teachers encourage students to share everything to make them feel more connected to each other and become a unified group of people.

Please click on the link below to answer the above questions.

Cultural Incident (Blackboard)

(Please log in to Blackboard at before clicking on the above link)

Due: Wednesday, 17 June 11:59 p.m. (midnight).


Let me explain homework for the next class. For this week’s homework, I’d like you to write about any critical incident that you (or somebody you know, such as your family or friend) had in the past.

To recap, critical incidents are defined as situations that cause confusion resulting from cultural differences, for at least one of the people involved, such as the story we read about Junji.

At the end, please also write about what you think caused cultural misunderstanding. In other words, think about what was at the bottom of the iceberg (e.g., beliefs, values, or way of life). Was there anything happening that people involved could not see? For instance, for the story about Junji, you could argue that the misunderstanding happened because what is means to be polite, and therefore impolite, can differ between cultures.

Here are some more details:

Please write 100 words or more in English.

Please give a title to your critical incident. Try to give an interesting title that makes people interested in your story!

You can use dictionaries when writing.

Due: Wednesday, 17 June 11:59 p.m. (midnight).

To submit your writing, please click on the link below:

Critical Incidents Homework

I look forward to reading about your critical incidents. Well, this is it for today. Hope you have a good weekend and see you next week!

Any questions?

If you have any questions about this class, you can post your questions on Blackboard too. I created a 掲示板 called “Questions about the course,” so you can post any questions you might have about this class there.

Questions about the course (Blackboard)

(Please log in to Blackboard at before clicking on the above link)

You can click on スレッドの作成 and post your question there.