Reading the Air

“The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.”  Proverbs 20:5


The Japanese have a phrase空気を読む (kūki o yomu) which translates literally as “reading the air.” It means to have an accurate perception of a given situation despite minimal verbal communication. In other words, a person who is good at reading the air has the ability to grasp what is left unsaid. This obviously presents quite the challenge to westerners who are more accustomed to direct communication patterns and are already significantly handicapped by having to operate in a language that is not their own.

The usage of the seemingly simple Japanese word for “yes” orはい (hai) reflects this concept. “Hai” in Japanese can mean anything, ranging from “Yes, I agree with you” to “Yes, I hear you.” Obviously, there is a world of difference between these two nuances, so one must read the air of the context in which it was said in order to discern the speaker’s intended meaning. I recall my initial struggles as an inexperienced missionary leading meetings in Japanese where I often failed to read the air. For example, I might mistakenly interpret everyone’s silent response on a particular topic as meaning they either had no opinion or that everyone was in agreement with me (I wish!). This inevitably led to a few misunderstandings, but people were generally very gracious and forgiving in such situations.

Someone who doesn’t read the air very well and misunderstands a particular social situation is conversely labeled as being a 空気読めない (kūki yomenai) person. Such people typically fail to take a hint, lack common sense, or neglect to read a person’s body language, which causes them to respond inappropriately. Younger Japanese now commonly use the abbreviation KY (Kūki Yomenai) in text messages and social media to describe such individuals. If someone is particularly bad at reading the air, he or she might be called a SKY, which stands for Super Kūki Yomenai!

Communication patterns and language naturally vary from culture to culture, but discerning matters of the heart, calls for a different set of skills that can be quite difficult to master. The desire to be fully understood by others is a longing we all have in common, but the harsh reality is that we often fail to understand ourselves, much less others. Motives, intentions, thoughts and feelings run much deeper than mere spoken words and actions, and are consequently, harder to interpret. Nonetheless, they are essential components in the communication process that we dare not neglect. As the writer of Proverbs points out, great insight is required to discern these deeper matters of the heart and such skills ultimately come from God. Therefore, we would be wise to turn to Him for help. Without His enablement, we would all be SKY people.

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