Emotional intelligence – a harmonious balance

By Sandra Kimball

What happens when assertiveness, a highly valued emotional competency in most Western cultures, comes in contact with "uchi no soto," the distinction of being on the inside, or set apart on the outside of a particular group in Japan? How can we use emotional intelligence to sensitively bridge the cross-cultural conundrums we experience everyday?

Lily, a sixth grade Japanese-Australian came home from her neighborhood school in Tokyo and burst into tears. Next week’s school lunch was going to include whale meat, and having spent her holidays watching the whales frolic off the coast in her Australian homeland, she came to think of whales with the same regard one would have for a pet. Lily had to find a way to sensitively navigate through cultural and also deeply personal values with emotional attentiveness. Lily’s independence, the ability to think for herself and not be unduly influenced by the thoughts, desires and emotions of others stood in stark contrast with her need to be in harmonious balance and feel secure within her social group in Japan.

Regardless of culture, we are bound together to all living things by our emotions. They provide a way for us to exchange information using facial expressions, body posture, and a whole realm of non-verbal language. We humans add another layer of sophisticated interpretations, labels and symbolic meaning to our emotional life.

Some of these interpretations can get muddled when communicating between cultures. For example, Western societies are more likely to be less tolerant of ambiguity. In Japanese society, nobody is expected to disagree directly. Disagreements are more likely be handled in a round about way. People in Japan usually take care to maintain a friendly atmosphere.

There is also a tolerance for silence in communication. This silence can imply a wide range of meaning such as deep thinking, consideration or embarrassment. But a Western person may interpret it as stonewalling. Stonewalling is an ability to dampen or even eliminate any sign of the emotion being internally experienced. Studies have shown that even though the outward signs aren’t there, on a physiological level an emotion is experienced very intensely. Stonewalling itself can be considered an emotional signal of being overpowered or of being unable or unwilling to deal with the matter at hand.

But why be aware of our emotions and does it matter so much in a cultural context? Can emotional intelligence help Lily out of her dilemma?

When we can participate more consciously in what we feel and how we respond, we’re more able to effectively manage stress and resolve conflicts with others. But this gets more complex when you’ve been taught a way that encourages social cohesion in one culture that might not make much sense in Japan.

Lily was able to hold this paradox in mind, and instead of having to choose one path, she could weave together her voice of protest and still remain a member of her group. She decided that during lunch that day, she would not make it a big issue and cause embarrassment to herself or shame to the others. She arranged to be absent during lunch for a personal appointment. She remained true to her beliefs and at the same time learned an important lesson about how people draw the line at different places when it comes to what they consider food. She didn’t have to agree with it, but she learned to respect it and will most probably grow up influencing others in a positive, peaceful way when it comes to what animals they will eat.

In a cross-cultural living situation, understanding emotions and how emotional expressions are culturally influenced is an important skill for meaningful communication to occur.

Sandra Kimball has been working in the mental health field for 25 years as a therapist, writer, educator, speaker and meditation teacher. She can be contacted at

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Bingo! emotional intelligence is an apropriate way to describe many of the issues facing Japan today. (Be it the country or this site).

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There is also a tolerance for silence in communication.

Have to disagree on that one. You have to make a grunt (AKA aizuchi) between each sentence your conversation partner utters. However, anyone who has ever lived with a woman should have already developed an aizuchi autopilot.

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Well I like a little rage rather than giving breed to lies. What personal appointment did Lily arrange after the fact that she knew what lunch would be? Or more what appointment did her mother arrange to avoid the confrontation? I can understand it too. But, getting into the nitty gritty means being able to cough up some answers, which means change constant; this is bit far-fetched with the word harmonious.

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More New-Agey fluff with no substance. Try this: read the article three times in a row, as I just did, and then try to say what it's about. Hollow liberal relativism at its worst.

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I think the author is confusing EQ (Emotional Intelligence) with permissiveness. EQ is not a -way- to avoid confrontation; EQ is the ability to apply constructive criticism taking into account different points of view and yet assert one's own opinion. EQ is not about shying away; on the contrary, EQ is the ability to build bridges between different viewpoints by exercising empathy and logic. EQ empowers a person to assert herself/himself - in fact, EQ allows a person to efficiently manage social situations by using negotiation, logical thinking and building harmony in a social group. In extreme, it is the art of manipulating other people successfully. Users of EQ are proactive. EQ is to a social actor what IQ is to a mathematician - the talent to reach effective solutions to complex situations. Someone with a high EQ may appear to read minds when they in fact simply understand better the social nuances, connections and hidden mechanism in a social situation. This empowers the person to suggest solutions or act accordingly.

It is also true that having the talent and the means does not imply you should do something. I admit there are cases when people prefer to hide to avoid a confrontation they see in the horizon, but that reaction has another name.

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weave together her voice of protest and still remain a member of her group.

She should have snuck into the classroom before school and drawn a massive whale spouting blood from its funnel on the blackboard.

That's what someone with real EQ would do.

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What a 'nothing' article.

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Whale meat is hard to come by these days. It's not like they sell whale burgers down at the micky d's or anything.

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There is more to this, "EQ" than what is commonly known. For the last 2 decades, I have been exposed to an advanced technique in controlling human behavior. First, the target is traumatized emotionally, heightening emotions, then though subtle, disguised stimuli, guide the person to do things in a way unknown to the target. An informed observer would see it as almost "robotic". This technique is a very advanced form of "EQ" possibly.

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Yeah but Apecs, you gotta look to Iran to get my perspective here! When explained, EQ, I can understand. As soon as you start to assimilate it though you loose the spirit of it. You dont know where you are headed, or how to guide your target, perhaps. You just gotta let it out honey! Just got to get down into the dirty emotions and talk about it. Then you'll know how to guide your target, and you wont manipulate-perhaps, what do you think.

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I am not joking, the method is based on the very basic model used in psychological research - the mouse in the maze. The question is, how can you divert the mouse to not run through looking for food or exit, but to condition the mouse to seek another objective like finding an object or to seek a particular stimuli. I was good in psycholoy in college, so I can recognize modus operandi in the open field. Department store layouts has a basis on the mouse maze.

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i actually liked the article. somehow, with the help of her parents (?), lily is learning to choose (when and if) her battles. i can`t imagine a sixth grader being able to "let it all out" by herself over something like this and alienate all around her. at a more appropriate time she can address the issue, like giving some sort of presentation and showing pictures of her adventures with whale-watching.

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I have no problem what this little kid did but avoiding something clearly isnt a good strategy later in life otherwise you will end up in yr bedroom & never wanting to leave like so many you hear about in Jpn these days

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Pardon my ignorance, but as long as the whale meat isn't from an endangered species, then Lily's story doesn't seem much different from "Charlotte's Web" where the kid's pet pig is about to become dinner. Interesting article though, "Stay focused on the results, and mind the means in order to keep peace and order" as opposed to "the end defies the means"... that's what I got from it.

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GW: As far as what I understand, Lily wasn't trying to change the world, or her school for that matter... she just didn't want to eat whale meat, and that's what she succeeded in doing. If her mission was to protest whale hunting and consumption of whale meat, and convince her class mates of the same, then I think you could say she was "avoiding".

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She watched whales "frolic" in Oz and so came to think of them "as a pet"? rubbish!

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By not facing the conflict is the Japanese way. She just gave in to the culture. To bad a teachable moment passed.

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do me a favor and at least READ what I wrote

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It is serious when there is a name for it-emotional intelligence. Gosh you could give someone a hug and be construed as being coercive. Lily, and the manipulation is quite some story, it seems so common, it could be true?

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