Updated March 13, 2023
Honne and Tatemae: Do you actually understand the difference?
Imagine running into a friend from college you haven’t seen in a long time. Someone who — if you’re honest — you never really liked. They point out how long it’s been and that you should definitely meet and catch up.
What do you do?
If you’re someone who automatically says “yes” in these situations with no intention of following through, you’re already familiar with the Japanese concepts of Honne (本音) and Tatemae (建前) — though you may not realize it!
“Honne'' and “Tatemae” are the Japanese names for two very important concepts. And, everyone needs a nice balance of Honne and Tatemae in their lives (though some may not want to admit it).
Thinking in terms of Honne and Tatemae helps people in Japan avoid awkward situations while going about their daily lives. Understanding these ideas is especially useful in the business world if you intend to work in Japan, as the concept is heavily embedded into the Japanese work culture.
This is why today, I’ll talk about Honne and Tatemae, explain what each concept means, and how you can — and should — utilize them in your daily life, as well as your business interactions in Japan.
Let’s start with definitions.
Honne’s Meaning: How You Really Feel
A literal translation of the word Honne in Japanese is true sound, which refers to how a person truly feels deep down.
As you may know, Japan has a rich culture with a strong societal structure. Social constructs are abundant and are still very well protected by the majority of the population.
Of course, in such an environment, expressing one’s true desires and feelings to anyone, anywhere, isn't exactly easy, and nor is it acceptable.
For instance, if you ask for something directly from a friend that they can’t or don’t want to provide, they might say “yes” but rather vaguely. This isn’t because they’re lying — they simply want to avoid the awkwardness of saying “no” directly to someone’s face.
They instead choose to be polite and give an answer that’s somewhat open-ended, and it’s up to you to decipher that the actual answer is a no.
As you can tell, politeness plays an important part in Japanese culture. I talked about this in my post on how to say no in Japanese, but the social standards in Japan don’t even allow saying “no” directly in most situations.
This is why keeping “Honne” (your true, blunt feelings) to yourself is important. Essentially, your Honne should be reserved for yourself and your closest friends and family.
For most social situations where you’re not in a private setting with people who are the closest to you, you’re going to have to stick to Tatemae.
Tatemae: Meaning and Significance
Tatemae, on the other hand, is all about the face you show to the world. According to Japanese culture, when you’re not among close friends or family, you need to act in an agreeable way that won’t lead to any awkward social situations.
Tatemae is exactly for this, as the word “tatemae” translates into something along the lines of a facade or something that’s built in front. It refers to a mask you put on when you go out into the world.
When expressing your Honne may not be suitable for the situation you might be in, you’re expected to consider Tatemae. It’s a style of communication that causes the least amount of awkwardness and helps conversations and daily interactions go by as smoothly as possible.
Not only does Tatemae help people out during social interactions, but it also helps preserve people’s public image in day-to-day life. After all, according to Japanese culture, your true feelings and emotions should be experienced and expressed in a private setting.
Always being mindful of Tatemae in this regard helps people avoid finding themselves in embarrassing situations, which helps them manage and preserve their public image at the workplace and at school.
Why Honne and Tatemae Is Not About “Lying”
People who aren’t familiar with Honne and Tatemae usually tend to reduce the concept to simply “lying,” which is far from the truth.
In reality, the culture of Honne and Tatemae doesn’t promote lying for the sake of lying but encourages being agreeable in the name of politeness, and as everyone in Japanese society is expected to be familiar with the concept, it just works.
The reason Honne and Tatemae is a prominent part of Japanese culture is actually more about the style of communication in Japan. Culturally, the preferred communication style in Japan is an indirect one. As I mentioned, this style of communication may require tiptoeing around certain subjects, but in the end, it saves everyone the awkwardness of facing an undesired situation.
An indirect way of communicating revolves heavily around context. If you read my post on how to say thank you in Japanese, you’ll realize that there are many ways to thank someone, depending on what the social context is.
Therefore, this style of communication involves not just understanding the words being said to you but also involves reading subtle cues and social context and interpreting what the actual meaning is.
As you can imagine, in a society where everyone is able to read small cues and consider the context, using Tatemae becomes less about lying and more about communicating differently.
How to Tell Honne and Tatemae Apart in Daily Life
If you’re not from Japan, it might be hard to tell apart what a person’s Honne is versus the Tatemae they’re expressing in public.
This is why many people who visit Japan from different cultures get the impression that Japanese people are very polite and patient, sometimes to an unprecedented degree.
For instance, you might see people missing the train but not making a fuss about it and instead sitting patiently and waiting. In reality, this isn’t because they’re more patient than you. It’s because it simply isn’t acceptable and is even frowned upon to act outraged in public.
It’s just not a good look on anyone, and the Japanese know this. Once you learn about Honne and Tatemae, it’s fairly easy to tell apart what is a facade and what isn’t in situations like these, but sometimes things can get a bit more challenging.
In particular, environments that call for a more serious and professional tone of communication, such as a business setting, can make it hard to tell apart who’s being polite and who’s being sincere.
As this is one of the situations where differentiating between Honne and Tatemae is crucial, and failing to do so can even cost you a job, let’s now have a closer look at how you can utilize these concepts in business.
The Importance of Honne and Tatemae in Business Life
As a foreigner working in Japan, the faster you learn to differentiate Honne and Tatemae, the faster you’ll get ahead in business. Let me explain.
Reading social cues and being mindful of cultural rules is an important part of Japan’s daily life, and it’s how the society functions. This concept becomes even more important in business life because speaking what’s on your mind directly can have much direr consequences.
When you first find out about this as a foreigner, you may feel like you can never tell apart what’s a lie and what is the truth due to the heavy utilization of Tatemae in the workplace.
It’s important not to get discouraged by this and remember that a language barrier and a change of culture contribute to this problem as much as, if not more, the concept of Tatemae itself.
At the end of the day, these sorts of unwritten rules don’t only exist in Japan. Japanese people might have a name for it, but that doesn’t change the fact that we all do it to some degree.
Think about it this way: what would you tell your boss who asks you how your weekend was? Would you say that you had a terrible weekend and rather be in bed right now, or would you simply give an agreeable answer that would fit the tone of the conversation better?
See, that’s Tatemae for you.
How You Can Deal With Honne and Tatemae at Work
If you’re worried about how to deal with Honne and Tatemae in an office setting, my first and arguably the best advice is to make real connections with your coworkers.
As I explained, Honne is for your inner circle. If you manage to become friends with the people who you work with directly, you’ll have a much easier time overall telling apart what’s real and what’s not.
Of course, you might never become true besties with your manager, boss, or clients, but the nature of the relationship should help you guide through interactions when this is the case.
When there’s such a power dynamic involved in a relationship, you should remember not to take any answer as an immediate yes or a no and should instead look for other cues.
Ambiguity in this regard is one of the best cues you can utilize. For instance, if a client is saying yes in a vague and avoidant manner to something you proposed, you should interpret it as more of a “no” than a “yes.”
Similarly, paying attention to suggestions and questions is also a good idea. These usually mean that someone is asking you to do something but are being polite and indirect.
Lastly, if all else fails, asking directly is always the best way to go. If you find yourself struggling to understand what someone means in the workplace, ask them directly. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as you’re being polite, after all.
If you find yourself struggling with more specific situations, you can also refer to my post on the tricky parts of navigating a Japanese workplace, which includes great tips for handling difficult workplace dilemmas.
Final Word on Honne and Tatemae
As I finish today’s post, I’d like to remind anyone who works or wants to work in Japan not to get discouraged. While it may be hard in the beginning, telling Tatemae apart from Honne gets progressively easier with time.
Don’t forget that a large part of your confusion comes from facing a completely new culture and experiencing it in a whole new language. As you get used to the communication style and the culture, you won’t even have to think too hard about most social interactions. You’ll just know.
Just remember, you don’t always have to agree with everything. The real reason Honne and Tatemae exist is to make daily interactions go by easier and as politely as possible. At the end of the day, it’s only a simple tool that’ll help you integrate into Japanese society and give you a better understanding of Japanese culture.
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