Conversational Ball Games


In the following reading, Nancy Masterson Sakamoto explains the difference between Japanese and American conversational styles. Born in the United States, Sakamoto has lived and taught English in Japan. She is currently professor of American Studies at Shitennoji Gakuen University, Hawaii Institute. The following selection is an excerpt from her textbook, Polite Fictions (1982).


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 and his friends and family. And I began to notice that often, when I joined in, the others would look startled, and the conversational topic would come to a halt (stop). After this happened several times, it became clear to me that I was doing something wrong. But for a long time, I didnít 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 (participating in the conversation) in a western way.

Japanese-style conversations develop quite differently from western-style conversations. And the difference isnít only in the languages. I realized that just as I kept trying to hold western-style conversations even when I was speaking Japanese, so my English students kept 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 (begin talking about something), a conversational ball, I expect you to hit it back. If you agree with me, I donít expect you simply to agree and do nothing more. I expect you to add something Ė a reason for agreeing, another example, or an elaboration (detail) to carry the idea further. But I donít 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 (allow me to continue).

And then it is my turn again. I donít serve a new ball from my original starting line. I hit your ball back again from where it has bounced (hit the ground and go up again). I carry your idea further, or answer your questions or objections, or challenge or question you.And so the ball goes back and forth, with each of us doing our best to give it a new twist, an original spin, or a powerful smash.

And the more vigorous (active, full of energy) the action, the more interesting and exciting the game. Of course, if one of us gets angry, it spoils the conversation, just as it spoils a tennis game. But getting excited is not at all the same as getting angry. After all, we are not trying to hit each other. We are trying to hit the ball. So long as we attack only each otherís opinions and do not attack each other personally, we donít expect anyone to get hurt. A good conversation is supposed to be interesting and exciting.

If there are more than two people in the conversation, then it is like doubles in tennis, or like volleyball. Thereís 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 (to give you a chance to play). Youíre responsible for taking your own turn.

But whether itís two players or a group, everyone does his best to keep the ball going, and no one person has the ball for very long.

A Japanese-style conversation, however, is not at all like tennis or volleyball. Itís 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 or junior position, and so on.

When your turn comes, you step up to the starting line with your bowling ball, and carefully bowl it. Everyone else stands back and watches politely, murmuring encouragement (giving encouragement in a soft voice). Everyone waits until the ball has reached the end of the alley and watches to see if it knocks down all the pins, or only some of them, or none of them. There is a pause, while everyone registers (writes down on an official form) your score.

Then, after everyone is sure that you have completely finished your turn, the next person in line steps up to the same starting line, with a different ball.
He doesnít return your ball, and he does not begin from where your ball stopped. There is no back and forth at all. All the balls run parallel (side by side). And there is always a suitable pause between turns. There is no rush, no excitement, and no scramble (no competition, no fighting) for the ball.

No wonder everyone looked startled (was surprised) when I took part in Japanese conversations. I paid no attention to whose turn it was and kept snatching the ball (quickly taking the ball) halfway down the alley and throwing it back at the bowler. Of course the conversation died. I was playing the wrong game.

This explains why it is almost impossible to get a western-style conversation or discussion going with English students in Japan. I used to think that the problem was their lack of English language ability. But I finally came to realize that the biggest problem is that they, too, are playing the wrong game.

Whenever I serve a volleyball, everyone just stands back and watches it fall, with occasional murmurs of encouragement. No one hits it back. Everyone waits until I call on someone to take a turn. And when that person speaks, he doesnít 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. Nobody seems to have paid any attention to what anyone else has said. Everyone begins again from the same starting line, and all the balls run parallel. There is never any back and forth. Everyone is trying to bowl with a volleyball.

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. Knowing the rules is not at all the same thing as playing the game.

Even now, during a conversation in Japanese I will notice a startled reaction, and belatedly realize (realize when it is too late) that once again I have rudely interrupted by instinctively (without thinking) trying to hit back the other personís bowling ball. It is no easier for me to ďjust listenĒ during a conversation, than it is for my Japanese students to ďjust relaxĒ when speaking with foreigners. Now I can truly sympathize with how hard they must find it to carry on a western-style conversation.

(By Nancy Masterson Sakamoto)


After You Read


A. For each item below, circle the answer that best completes the statement.


1.  The main idea of this article is that ____________________________.


a.   People converse differently in Japan and in the West.

b.  Itís important to take part in conversations.

c.   Itís difficult to have a conversation with someone from another country.

d.  Itís rude to interrupt someone who is speaking.


2.  The author makes all of the following arguments except __________.


a.   Japanese-style conversations are like bowling.

b.  Western-style conversations are like tennis or volleyball.

c.   In Japanese-style conversations, you must wait your turn to speak.

d.  Western-style conversations are longer than Japanese-style conversations.


3.  You can infer from this article that the author __________________.


a.   was born in Japan

b.  has always lived in Japan

c.   is a teacher

d.  no longer lives in Japan


4.  The authorís purpose in writing this article was not to ___________.


a.   instruct

b.  entertain

c.   make you believe the author

d.  criticize


5.  According to the author if you have been trained all your life to play one game________________________________________.


a.   itís easy to switch to another if you know the rules

b.  itís no simple matter to switch to another if you know the rules

c.   itís possible to switch to another even if you donít know the rules

d.  itís impossible to switch to another if you know the rules


B.                        Consider the issues. Work with a partner to answer the questions below.

1.  What are the characteristics of a Western-style conversation and a Japanese-style conversation? List ideas from the article in the chart below.


Western-style conversation

Japanese-style conversation

Okay to disagree

Important to wait for your turn















2.  When you are having a conversation with a friend, is it more like a Western-style conversation or Japanese-style conversation? Why?

3.  What is the authorís attitude toward Western and Japanese-style conversations? Does she think one style is better than the other?

4.  What happened when the author first began participating in Japanese con≠versations? Why? What was the reaction of her students?

5.  In drawing the analogies, the author contrasts the two styles of conversation. Explain the differences in the following:taking turns; approach to the topic (the ball); pausing; reactions of participants; determining the score.

6.  Have you ever been misunderstood because of different styles of communication?

Text 2: The Art of Conversation


Before you Read


Do you know that the word ďconversationĒ is derived from the Latin verb ďconversariĒ which means Ďto keep company withí? So, perhaps, what you talk about isnít as important as the fact that you are being sociable.


A. Work in small groups and discuss these questions:


a)  What makes a conversation enjoyable?

b)  What makes a conversation frustrating?

c)  Whatís your definition of a good conversationalist?


B. You are going to read the answers of six people. Each of them answers one of the questions above. As you read, make brief notes of their answers. Use your notes to decide which question they are answering.




Question answered


take active part, people who donít hog conversation


















1.  Well, I like to be able to take an active part in the conversation, so it helps if there arenít any people who hog the conversation (who are talking too much themselves and donít give others to speak) all the time, and besides, people need to have a sense of humour about things, I think, not to take things too seriously and you need a conversation that flows, so that you can Ö well, you donít get stuck on one point.

2.  Um, a good conversationalist. Iíd say itís someone who has got a point that they want to put across (to communicate) during the conversation. Someone with something to say as opposed to someone who just talks endlessly about various subjects and doesnít engage in one particular subject and Iíd say it was someone who listens to other people as well, um, thatís what Iíd say.

3.  When people arenít really interested in what you are saying, um, thatís very annoying indeed. Also people who interrupt you continually with grunts or opinions of their own or whatever, and also some people donít care about whose turn it is to talk, so they just, you know, butt in ( interrupt) when you are in the middle of a thought and obviously when the topic is boring. Thatís very irritating. And sometimes, you know, the conversation goes nowhere, and that is also extremely irritating.

4.  I really hate it when Iím with someone who just drones on and on (talks in a flat and boring voice) in a conversation, and who doesnít give you a chance to speak at all. Oh, and I also really hate it when they just carry on and they donít care whether or not you are interested at all in what they are saying. They seem oblivious (not noticing what is happening around them) to how you are reacting to them. I hate that.

5.  Itís good when you are talking about things which youíve got in common with the person you are talking to, like you are on the same wavelength and you can share the same tastes or experiences so you know where the other person is coming from. Itís also nice if you can share a joke or a personal story or an anecdote or something like that.

6.  I canít stand it when you have to do all the talking yourself, when the other person is not responding, or when they are responding but itís with monosyllabic answers, you know, just going, yeah, er, um, and thatís all you are getting back, and when you have to work to keep the conversation going, thatís really bad, when you are having to hunt around (try to find) for things to say, because you are just not getting anything back.


After You Read


A. Choose one of the questions below and discuss it with your partner. Try to use some of the expressions from the answers above.


1.  Who is the best conversationalist you know? What makes him or her such a good conversationalist?

2.  Can you remember a frustrating conversation youíve had recently? Why was it so frustrating?

3.  What was the most enjoyable conversation youíve had recently? Who were you talking to? What made it so enjoyable?