When it's useful to read the air, and when it's not
KY, short for Kuuki Yomenai, translates to “not able to read the air” in Japanese. It’s a term used to describe a person who can’t read the room, pick up on nonverbal cues, and read between the lines. In a “high-context” society like Japan, where people share a high level of shared reference points like implicit knowledge and associations*, being KY is tantamount to being insensitive, even rude.
Usually, the advice being given to people who work in cross-cultural contexts is to adapt to the context—when in a high-context society, try to read the air more, and when in a low-context society (like the U.S.), there is less need to read the air. But to a facilitator or anyone working with groups, I would give the opposite advice.
In high-context situations, there is a real danger to reading the air too much. I will give an example of a tragi-comic situation I encountered a few years ago at a meeting with a Japanese group. Everyone in the room agreed with an idea that no one (it turns out) actually supported. The idea was not an optimal solution, but we agreed to go along with it because we each “read the air” and thought that everyone else agreed with it. What’s worse, we held different understandings of what was agreed, which eventually led to irreconcilable differences. I regret not speaking up then and asking, “What are we really agreeing to? Are there other options we could be considering?” The collective reading of air had led us to acquiesce to the status quo, out of complacency and fear of offending others. In a situation like this, it would have been helpful for a facilitator to challenge the group to verbalize their thinking.
On the other hand, in a low-context society like the U.S., resisting the group's compulsion to make everything explicit is a better strategy. There is a tendency for Americans to want to rush too quickly into evaluating, voting, and settling black and white before it truly makes sense to do so and before the group is ready. People in low-context societies have a hard time sitting with ambiguity and uncertainty—if X is A, then it can’t also be B and C and D at the same time. But reality is otherwise. In these contexts, a facilitator can ensure that different perspectives are allowed to surface, even if they seem incoherent and contradictory at first. By reading the air, a facilitator can help the group be more comfortable with accepting ambiguities as they are.**
In sum, whether or not you should read the air as a facilitator depends on where you are—if you’re in a high-context society, it helps to not read the air too much (or pretend not to read it even if you do), and ask questions to verbalize the group's thinking. In a low-context society, on the other hand, it helps to read the air very carefully, and help the group be more comfortable with ambiguities.
*The concept of “high-context” and “low-context” societies was developed by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 1970s. I have adopted the particular definition by Erin Meyer in The Culture Map (2014). For a brief but informative video introduction to the concept, see: Video
**I would like to acknowledge Paul Cooper of Face to Face Strategies (dcfacilitator.com) for sharing his facilitation story with me and giving me this idea. I have written about his story in a Facebook post for the Mid-Atlantic Facilitators Network: Paul's story
***Top photo by Tanaphong Toochida on Unsplash.com