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After I was married, and had lived in Japan for a while, my Japanese gradually improved to the point where I could take part in simple conversations with my husband, his friends, and his family. And I began to notice that often, when I joined in. the others would look startled, and the conversation would come to a halt. After this happened several times, it became clear to me that I was doing something wrong. But for a long time, I didn’t know what it was.

Finally, after listening carefully to many Japanese conversations, I discovered what my problem was. Even though I was speaking Japanese. I was handling the conversation in a Western way.

Japanese-style conversations develop quite differently from Western-style conversations. And the difference isn’t only in the languages. I realised that just as I kept trying to hold Western-style conversations even when I was speaking Japanese, so were my English students trying to hold Japanese-style conversations even when they were speaking English. We were unconsciously playing entirely different conversational ballgames.


A Western-style conversation between two people is like a game of tennis. If I introduce a topic, a conversational ball, I expect you to hit it back. If you agree with me, I don’t expect you simply to agree and do nothing more. I expect you to add something – a reason for agreeing, another example, or a remark to carry the idea further. But I don’t expect you  always to agree. I am just as happy if you question me, or challenge me, or completely disagree with me. Whether you agree or disagree, your response will return the ball to me.

And then it’s my turn again. I don’t serve a new ball from my original starting line. I hit your ball back again where it has bounced. I carry your idea further, or answer your questions or objections, or challenge or question you. And so the ball goes back and forth.

If there are more than two people in the conversation, then it is like doubles in tennis, or like volleyball. There’s no waiting in line. Whoever is nearest and quickest hits the ball, and if you step back, someone else will hit it. No one stops the game to give you a turn. You’re responsible for taking your own turn and no one person has the ball for very long.

A Japanese-style conversation, however, is not at all like tennis or volleyball, it’s like bowling. You wait for your turn, and you always know your place in line. It depends on such things as whether you are older or younger, a close friend or a relative stranger to the previous speaker, in a senior and junior position, and so on.


The first thing is to wait for your turn, patiently and politely. You step up to the starting line with your bowling ball, and carefully bowl it. Everyone else stands back, making sounds of polite encouragement. Everyone waits until your ball has reached the end of the lane, and watches to see if it knocks down all the pins, or only some of them, or none of them. Then there is a pause, while everyone registers your score. Then, after everyone is sure that you are done, the next person in line steps up to the same startling line, with a different ball. He doesn’t return your ball, no back and forth at all.

No wonder everyone looked startled when I took part in Japanese conversations. I paid no attention to whose turn it was, and kept snatching the ball halfway down the alley and throwing it back at the bowler. Of course the conversation fell apart, I was plating the wrong game.

This explains why it can be so difficult to get a Western-style discussion going with Japanese students of English. Whenever I serve a volleyball, everyone just stands back and watches it fall. No one hits it back. Everyone waits until I call on someone to take a turn. And when that person speaks, he doesn’t hit my ball back. He serves a new ball. Again, everyone just watches it fall. So I call on someone else. This person does not refer to what the previous speaker has said. He also serves a new ball. Everyone begins again from the same starting line, and all the balls run parallel. There is never any back and forth.

Now that you know about the difference in the conversational ballgames, you may think that all your troubles are over. But if you have been trained all your life to play one game, it is no simple matter to switch to another, even if you know the rules. Tennis, after all, is different from bowling.

An article from my English for Speakers of Other Languages class, written by Nancy Masterson Sakamoto