Small Talk at the Dinner Table – Yay or Nay? | Guidable Japan

Small Talk at the Dinner Table – Yay or Nay?

By Yae Sep 29, 2018

Eating breakfast, lunch or dinner with your friends or family is an important activity and a precious moment for people around the world. Mealtime is the perfect opportunity for people to exchange stories about their daily lives to their loved ones.

When you’re having a meal in Japan, have you ever noticed that many Japanese people often enjoy their food very quietly? If you observe them, most Japanese just focus on finishing the dishes without chatting with one another.

If you’re someone who is used to chatting with your friends and family at the dining table, it may seem a little odd to see people eating quietly. Do you wonder why Japanese people have this manner when eating?

1. Japanese People Used to Have Their Own Individual Dining Table

From Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) to Meiji Period (1868-1912), Japanese people used to have their own individual box-shaped dining table known as “hakozen” in Japanese. Each member in the family used their own tables, and the custom was that each person enjoys meals at their own pace on their personal table. Chatting with other family members during meal time was forbidden during this period.

Since the Meiji Period, Japanese people started to adopt the low dining table that is called “chabudai” instead of the old hakozen. Gradually, Japanese families began to share small talk with each other while having meals. After World War Ⅱ (1939-1945), Japanese people finally got used to sitting together to share food and stories. Therefore, Japan’s dining custom actually went through many changes over a long period in history.

2. “Keeping Quiet” while Eating is a Common Sight

It’s now normal that Japanese people talk while eating, whether it’s at home or at restaurants. However, if you look carefully, you can find some Japanese couples or families that still keep silent during meals.

This is due to the fact that some Japanese people still hold onto old habits from the hakozen dining style. Not talking while eating is a custom that is passed down to later generations in many traditional households. Considering that the Edo Period was a prosperous time for Japan that lasted for a long time, it can be difficult for people to completely let go of old traditions. Not to mention, traditional households with a long line of ancestors often view these ancient customs as very precious and therefore pay much respect and effort to preserve these cultural behaviors.

3. TV During Meal Time?

The majority of Japanese people nowadays keep the TV on during meals for many reasons. For example, they might

・feel lonely while eating if not watching TV.
・want some background noise to break the awkward silence if others aren’t talking.
・want to relax after a stressful day at work.
・want to enjoy their favorite source of entertainment.
・not have much to talk about.

Each family has their own reason to turn on the TV at meal time, but in general this habit widespread in Japan.

Ironically, although leaving the TV on during meals can help in the situations above, it can also be detrimental. The TV could become a distraction that removes family members from having conversation with each other, causing people to become more silent.

This is why there is a contrasting group of Japanese people who prefer to tighten the family bond over concentrating on the television at meals! For these people, the TV can damage family relationships as members communicate less when the TV is on. Enjoying conversation while eating can create a sense of unity with the people whom you love and help keep track of how they are doing at school or at work. Therefore, in Japan, people also are starting to realize that small talk during meals are very important!

4. Not Everyone is the Same!

Although conversing when having a meal together is beneficial, some Japanese people can be very shy or not so good at conversation. Not everyone is the same, so there can be people who are great listeners, but they would rather not talk much. We should respect the diversity of characteristics.

It is true that it can be difficult to distinguish people who don’t want to talk and those who just aren’t used to talking while eating. If you want to share stories with Japanese people at during mealtime, try asking them questions to learn about their home culture!

By exploring Japanese history and culture, we have learned that Japanese people were originally not used to having meals with each other, hence it became a social custom to not talk much during meal time. However, in modern days, many Japanese people love to chat while eating and conversations at meal time are great for tightening relationships!

Do you have plan to go out to dinner with your Japanese friends anytime soon? Let’s figure out whether your friends like talking during meals or not!