There’s a scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life in which Death comes to supper.
The grim reaper is dispatched to a remote countryside house, where, despite the fact that there’s no mistaking who he is, the guests have trouble getting it.
The reserved upper class host and his friendly wife think he’s simply one of the villagers and invite him in, where Howard Katzenberg, from Philadelphia, and his wife Debbie are seated at the table along with another British couple.
They get the idea that his name is Mr. Death, even offering him a drink, but don’t get the significance of his visit.
“Mr. Death is a reaper…” the over friendly housewife host played by Eric Idol says. “The grim reaper…” he corrects her.
The reaper becomes increasingly frustrated as the bubbly guests try to make small talk. “I… am… the… grim… reaper!” he says. “That’s about all his says!” Palin’s character (in drag) says rolling her eyes.
The guests don’t even get the point when the reaper smashes a glass in frustration.
“Would you prefer white?” he’s asked. “The Stilton’s pretty good!” another guest hones in.
Suddenly, the reaper walks through the table and announces that he is death and not of this world, but the guests take it as an opportunity to mention they were just talking about death a few minutes previous… whether its really the end or there’s something after it.
“You do not understand,” the Reaper says.
Immediately the American, played by Terrence Gilliam jumps in saying, “Well I’d just like to express on behalf of everyone here what a unique experience this is!”
As death grows increasingly impatient, the guests continue to chat on about everything, all at the same time… including the sherry.
Finally, the reaper says straight out that he’s come to take everyone away. “Well, that’s cast a rather a gloom over the evening, hasn’t it?” Chapman’s stereotypically reserved British character responds.
As the American tries to hone in one last time the reaper loses it. “Shut up… you Americans, you always talk and you talk and you say, let me tell you something and I just wanna say this… well you’re dead now, so shut up!”
“Dead?” the guests ask… to which Graham Chapman lectures the reaper on his rudeness for barging in the house, breaking glasses and announcing that everyone’s all dead.
The reaper once again blows his top. “You Englishmen, you’re all so ****** pompous… None of you have got any ****!”
After Mrs. Katzenberg points out the impossibility of all the guests dying at once, the Reaper dramatically points to the Salmon Mousse whereupon after the host’s failed attempt to shoot him, they’re lead off to the afterworld even as their ghost forms continue their dinner conversations and load into their cars.
The scene in the movie, to me epitomizes distinct stereotypes that not only many Americans have of Brits and Brits of Americans, but how many Japanese may view foreigners in general. In particular… the American tendency towards being open, chatty, and very slow to get the main point of something unless its very directly stated… and even then, perhaps not quite yet ready to grasp it.
But are these mere cultural stereotypes – or cultural tendencies?
As the comedy in that scene is as potently effective as you’d expect of any Python skit, one might presume that it may very well have an ounce of truth.
This leads to an interesting concept suggested by Richmond and McCroskey called the Assertiveness/Responsiveness Construct and a 20 question survey they developed to measure it.
Assertiveness refers to our abilities to state opinions with conviction and defend ourselves against verbal attack. It is a positive quality that allows us to defend ourselves so that others can’t take advantage of us and we can defend ourselves. Those lacking are perceived as quiet and less talkative.
Responsiveness, in turn, refers to our willingness to open up when communicating with others, to be empathetic listeners, and make people feel that we are sensitive of their desires.
According to Richmond and McCroskey, individuals who are prone towards low assertiveness yet high responsiveness tend to exhibit high communication anxiety, a low tolerance for ambiguity, a low tolerance for disagreement and a lack of assertiveness.
In 1989, Ishii and Thompson, researchers from Otsuma Women’s University in Japan and West Virginia University in the US wanted to compare the Assertiveness/Responsiveness Construct between Japanese and Americans, so they gave the test to a total of 493 participants from each of their universities. The students consisted of 241 Japanese (125 male, 116 females) and 252 Americans (144 males, 108 females).
What were the results? It concluded that Japanese and Americans are both highly responsive in their oral interaction with others, although Americans are significantly more so, and that Americans are highly assertive while Japanese are only moderately so. In other words, in terms of social style, Japanese aren’t as assertive or responsive as Americans so they’re more apprehensive than Americans in oral communication situations… The study; however, offered an enormous caveat…
According to another theory, there are societies where messages rely on physical context and non-verbal behavior, and societies where verbal communication is carried out almost entirely through the explicit means. Japan, is a high context society – meaning Japanese don’t have to be orally explicit to transmit their messages. In Japanese, more-so than English, context alone can convey meanings and feelings.
In the end, we see a situation where people can communicate similar emotions and ideas, but do so in different ways. The question arises, for those of us who come from low context societies, is it possible that cultural miscommunication occurs when we simply don’t get the message, and if so, in adapting to the culture, how can we learn to read between the lines? Likewise, for people from high context societies like Japan, what language skills are required to best get the point across to people who are bad at taking hints???