So, I don’t know if you’ve ever interacted with a Japanese person before and have experienced these concepts called honne and tatemae. But in case you do, here’s a heads-up so you know what to expect and how you should converse with someone from the land of the rising sun.
Communication - Western vs. Eastern
Honne (本音) means ‘real intention’ or ‘motive’. Basically, it refers to a person’s true emotions and desires. What a person feels in private or ‘on the inside’ may be contradictory to what society expects. It may also be inappropriate for one’s situation or circumstances in life or relationships. Therefore, one’s honne is (for the most part) kept hidden from everyone except for their closest friends and family. This is so that the wa or ‘harmony’ in society and personal relationships are not disturbed. Remember, Asian cultures are all about harmony and the group trumps the individual. The function and prosperity of the collective group matters most in life.
Tatemae (建前), on the other hand, means pretext or literally ‘facade’. It is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae may or may not match your honne (true feelings, right) and is described as what is expected of someone out in society. Tatemae protects the wa, allows for pleasant interaction, and ensures no one will be offended. Basically, you act and think a certain way in front of people even if you don’t feel like it (i.e. a hard job situation).
These concepts are often hard for Westerners to understand and seen as two-faced and ‘white lying’. But for some examples of the lack of tatemae and too much honne in the West:
“I want my life back.”
“Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you…I’ll let you finish. But Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!”
“Matt, Matt, you don’t even — you’re glib. You don’t even know what Ritalin is.”
“The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”
Here’s a good, simple quote:
“People in Japan are implicitly taught from a young age how to use honne and tatemae properly, and these concepts are important in maintaining face and not hurting the feelings of others; therefore, what a speaker says in not always what he or she really means. Conversation is not comfortable in Japan unless honne and tatemae are properly employed, and those who cannot use these concepts effectively are not considered to be good communicators, because they may hurt others or make a conversation unpleasant by revealing honne at the wrong moment. People have to be careful about situations in which honne should be hidden and tatemae used, and in order to do this, they need experience and sensitivity.”
-Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno; The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture
Also, these guys at I Speak Japanese put together this interesting video discussing honne & tatemae