To engage in dialogue, we must be good listeners, seeking to hear an insight, perhaps fuzzily formulated and unclear even to the speaker, but nevertheless worthy of exploration.

Every culture has its own conversational style that often inhibits genuine dialogue. In Japan, for instance, the division of scholars and scientists at universities and research institutes into sempai (seniors) and kōhai (juniors) obstructs the pursuit of the truth through dialogue. A Japanese scholar or scientist finds it extremely difficult to disagree openly with even a trifling remark made by his senior. Any opposition must be expressed in a roundabout fashion.

Chie Nakane, a social anthropologist at the University of Tokyo, depicts a typical interchange between a sempai and a kōhai: “First, the objector should introduce a long appraisal of the part of the sempai’s work in question, using extremely honorific terms, and then gradually present his own opinion or opposition in a style which will give the impression that his opposition is insignificant… The ranking of sempai and kōhai thus stifles the free expression of individual thought.”[1] As a result, Japanese scientists won five Nobel prizes in the twentieth century, the same number as scientists in Belgium, which has one-twelfth of Japan’s population. A quarter of the world’s scientists are Japanese—more than Britain, France, West Germany, and Italy put together. Yet, the Japanese government believes that the work of its 490,000 scientists lags behind that in North America and Europe in originality.

The conversational style of the well-educated, upper class in England is the opposite of that of Japanese scholars. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu confesses that he was “brought up as a stiff, stuffed-shirt Englishman who considered that any exhibition of emotion was low class. To be very cutting in one’s wit no matter how unpleasant it was, how denigrating it was to another person, was correct behavior.”[2] A cutting witty remark demands a wittier response; such a battle of wits makes dialogue impossible, although it is often amusing to witness.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “are never inclined to take the master’s word on trust, but ever tend to look for the weak side of his argument.”[3] In contemporary American life, no masters are recognized, and, in effect, the three great teachers of humankind—the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus—are seen as just three voices among many. In fact, if anyone holds up someone as a master to follow, Americans will intentionally ignore or dismiss that person, since it smacks of inequality. Because of the principles of social equality that most of us have mindlessly taken in, we do not trust the authority of any person and have a strong “distaste for accepting any man’s word as proof of anything.”[4] When we listen intently to another person or carefully read what a thinker has written, we do so in order to single out a perceived flaw to which we can say “no!”, and in this way, no interlocutor or author will ever be superior to us.

But often we do not listen at all; as isolated, autonomous individuals, we are not interested in what others have to say, although we expect they will listen to us. Consequently, many American conversations are no more than a series of monologues.

To engage in dialogue, we must be good listeners, seeking to hear an insight, perhaps fuzzily formulated and unclear even to the speaker, but nevertheless worthy of exploration. Shunryu Suzuki, a modern Zen Master, gives another key element of dialogue: “When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners.”[5] Dialogue puts us on the road to genuine questioning that inspires all true learning. If we have the freshness of a true beginner, then we may discover that what really counts is never to be taken for granted—reality is strange, amazing, and deeper than it seems to be to common sense or cultural formation.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Chie Nakane, Japanese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), p. 34.

[2] Ashley Montagu, interview Dennis Wholey, Discovering Happi­ness: Personal Conversations About Getting the Most Out of Life (New York: Avon, 1988), p. 37.

[3] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), p. 459.

[4] Ibid., p. 430.

[5] Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Boston: Shambhala, 2006), p. 2.

The featured image is “The Conversation” (c. 1935) by Arnold Lakhovsky (1880–1937) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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