Two people, meeting.
Person One - Hi, how are you?
Person Two - I'm fine, thanks. And you?
Person One - Great.
Does the first really want to know how the other is doing? And if the second was doing not-so-fine, would they have said so?
The Little White Lie
There are many situations in everyday life where social interaction is an insincere ritual we go through, even though the ritual itself suggests otherwise. This is because the social circumstances around us, the codes and contracts that determine where we stand and how we are looked at and how we look at others, the cultural impulses or the sensitivity of a situation, ask us to suppress our natural impulses and replace them with a more formal, socially complacent conduct. We learn to do this early in life. It can be the aunt whose ever-wet kisses you hated, but to keep repelling her was not done. To simply tell her that you were not amused with her continuous slobbering is right out of the question. Maybe you would laugh about her among your siblings, but never to her face.
It continues to haunt us. It seems that as a group we prefer these stability-preserving rituals over the real emotional responses of a person, though we can curse these same rituals as being hypocritical and unnecessary when we are alone. It is found most frequently and most severely in places where people must interact closely though they have not really chosen to be with their company themselves. Parties, the office and family gatherings are all prime examples.
In this, we can ask: what is the social reality of a given situation?
- Is it the fact that you dislike the aforementioned wet-kiss aunt?
- Or is it the fact that you allow her to kiss you again and again?
- Is it the fact that we all know his wife is having an affair?
- Or is it the fact that they have shown up at the party together?
The Japanese Solution
In the Japanese language, an explicit acknowledgement of this double social reality is made by way of two words which are diametrically opposed to each other.
Tatemae (pronounced 'Ta-teh-MAE'): official, public, socially required reality
Honne (pronounced 'HON-neh'): informal, personal reality in disregard of social parameters
The fact that these two words exist in Japanese is a fascinating thing. Here is a society that can be seen by outsiders as, by way of vocabulary, being honest about casual dishonesty. To themselves, however, it is more the acknowledgement of there being more than one mode of honesty entirely.
For people with a more Western social upbringing this is a strange thing, since when asked which of the two 'modes of honesty' is more 'real', they are inclined to say the honne side of things should prevail for it is morally right. But morals are sometimes for forming social proceedings. Furthermore, since the dawn of Western science and the disenchantment brought on by rationalism, the Western mindset does not allow for two realities to exist on an equal level. In Oriental philosophy there is far more room for multiple explanations of reality, be it in science, religion, or, as in this case, in everyday social life. For the Japanese, honne is not more real, only perhaps more true to the thoughts of a person. Yet because tatemae is what appears at the discernible surface of everyday life, it should be considered just as relevant to reality as honne. What one thinks is not what one does, and sometimes what one does is more important.
Isn't that a Lie?
Is the tatemae/honne dichotomy different from the innocuous white lie?
Yes and no. Little white lies are probably the best we can come up with when we think about social harmony prevailing over personal reality. Our moral puritanism allows for such lies only to be white if they stay little. But tatemae is not small, nor is it seen as a veritable lie. It is an entire way of being in certain situations, cancelling out the areas of interaction that are personal, sticky and altogether unwanted in the relation, in favour of peace and harmony. People can interact with each other their entire lives and have a silent mutual agreement to limit themselves to tatemae.
The usage of the two words is not limited to reflections on social interaction. In discussions about the news, in international relations, in scientific research reports, policy making, there is room for tatemae and honne running parallel to each other, providing a safe way to contemplate sensitive issues.
The fact that the difference between the two realities in society has been made explicit in Japanese can be seen as an indication that the Japanese are 'honestly dishonest' a lot, maybe even more than people in Western society. Yet it can also be seen as an indication of a people that values true sincerity so much, it makes its insincere moments explicit, thereby implicitly apologising for them.
Consider a bank employee from France, who works at a bank in Japan for 15 years. Every morning he is greeted by his Japanese co-workers with the same enthusiasm and warmth as he bestows on them. He grows to like this job very much, comforted by the belief that he is thought highly of by his fellows.
Yet, somewhere in his 13th year on the job, during a private moment with a co-worker, during a quasi-philosophical talk about heaven and how to get there, this Japanese colleague says: 'Well at least I don't think you will ever get to heaven. You don't seem to be a nice person at all.'
This undistorted display of how the co-worker really thinks about him arrives after 13 years of working closely together. For Japanese, this is not strange. The fact that honne is spoken out is a sign that one feels the other can be trusted with this personal truth. It may be the start of an entirely different mode of relating, but something the Japanese value enormously. Instead of being honoured because he is finally entrusted with this personal reality though, the Frenchman is deeply offended. After all, he says, he has been lied to for so long!