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New Key to Survival in Changing Times:

'Reading the Air'


In Japan, Taiwan, and around the world, in the workplace, businesses and political circles, people are desperately seeking the social awareness skills that often mean the difference between success and failure.



'Reading the Air'

By Benjamin Chiang, Eric Chang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 407 )

Having the ability to "read the air" is a necessary survival skill in the modern era.

Beginning last year, kuuki yome ("read the air") has become the hottest catchphrase in Japanese workplace management circles and the new "must-study" management subject for businesses, individuals and even politicians.

The concept stems from the Japanese phrase kuuki yomenai, sometimes shortened to simply "KY" in common speech, literally meaning "can't read the air." Translated loosely as being "clueless," the phrase is used to describe people who are deficient in common sense and social skills and generally lack awareness of their surroundings.

Air, of course, is colorless and odorless and difficult to sense, but humanity cannot do without it.

Similarly, interaction between different people can create different types of "air." It is still colorless and odorless, but its flow and changes can be sensed through acute observation.

"Reading the air" does not simply refer to gauging people's expressions as they speak; it's about nurturing the ability to sense the existing atmosphere, propose and communicate ideas for improvement, and then execute those ideas.   

Surveys indicate that 70 percent of young Japanese remain in their jobs for fewer than three years. The main cause of their short tenures is not their lack of ability, but rather communication problems. Many highly creative young people engender communication barriers within their teams because they are not good at "reading the air."

Christine Kuan, external & corporate affairs director for the pharmaceuticals company MSD Taiwan, observes that workplace education and training only emphasize technical skills (English, technical certifications) and management knowledge, "but have neglected the most fundamental ability to observe changing environments."

Aside from individuals, enterprises should also "read the air" and adjust their operating strategies accordingly.

Hsu Chung-ren, president of Taiwan's biggest convenience store operator President Chain Store Corporation, has never dared to underestimate the importance of "reading the air." Every week he takes the time to ride his bicycle, leading a team of executives on shopping outings to observe changing trends in consumer markets.

Opening the Gate to Success

In today's world, sensing changes in the atmosphere and understanding how to predict changes in popular air currents is equally as important as the Central Weather Bureau's forecasting the path of a typhoon.

In his book Friend Hell – "Reading the Air" to Survive the Times, University of Tsukuba professor Takayoshi Doi observes that since the 1980s, education has grown increasingly personalized, respecting each child's individuality and empowering them with the ability to decide their own futures.

Although this model has spawned a highly creative and skilled generation, it has also cultivated individuals who lack self-discipline, have trouble communicating and cannot see into the future.

BenQ Group chairman K.Y. Lee recently complained that there were "too many otaku" – a Japanese term for "geeks" with obsessive interests, an affinity for gadgets, and poor interpersonal skills. Lee feels that this makes it difficult for companies to find young employees who communicate well and have well-rounded abilities. The reason, he says, is that young people have come to depend on the Internet, leading to their penchant to remain cloistered in their virtual environment and leaving them unwilling to go out and communicate with the outside world. As a result, they severely lack perceptive faculties.

Four Key Skills in 'Reading the Air'

What, then, is required to understand how to "read the air"?

Yoshihito Naitou, a Keio University PhD in sociology wrote in his book The Art of Reading the Air that there are a number of keys to mastering the concept. First, one must fully understand the situation, confirming who the people are in attendance, their professional and interpersonal relationships, and your own relationships with them. Second, use suitable and concise language when speaking. Third, pay close attention to the overall atmosphere and changes in it to choose a time to speak. Fourth, observe changes in the eyes and expressions of those present, because they harbor valuable information.

Creativity needs to be sold so that superiors and the team understand and accept it. If people do not understand the art of "reading the air" or lack awareness of their surroundings, they will create communication barriers when they present their ideas and may not have them accepted. Therefore, learning communications techniques and how to "read the air" have become vitally important in today's world.

The Price of Political Aloofness

"Reading the Air" is not just a skill for the workplace or business environment, but one essential for politicians too.

Sun Tzu wrote in his Art of War over 2,000 years ago: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." In effect, he was reminding commanders of the importance of weighing the situation and "reading the air."

Coming from a well-known family of elected officials, Taoyuan County commissioner Eric Liluan Chu recalls suffering a painful experience because he failed to "read the air."

Over the past two years, as part of his planning for a Taoyuan aviation city, Chu led county delegations to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and Seoul's Incheon International Airport to learn from their experiences. As a reciprocal gesture, Chu enthusiastically invited the managers of these airports to Taiwan to study the possibility of corporatizing the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

"We all thought the Taoyuan airport needed to move in the direction of corporatization, which is the trend in the world today. But we neglected the feelings of airport personnel and the Civil Aeronautics Administration," Chu admits.

A sense of being deprived of their rights over the possibility of losing their jobs quickly spread among workers in various Taoyuan airport units, but the county government failed to sense the rising discontent. Eventually, a spate of anonymous "poison" letters emerged, accusing the authorities of speculating on land or saying the corporatized airport would turn into an uncontrollable Godzilla. This hindered the progress of the proposal.

National leaders must also be able to read popular moods, proposing appropriate policies at appropriate times. Otherwise, policies that the leader may have thought worthwhile will not receive the public's affirmation, consigning the leader to the ranks of "KY politicians."

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, for example, was saddled with the moniker the "KY prime minister," and his cabinet was known as the "KY cabinet." When the government erred in recording the pension records of millions of workers last year, Japanese citizens were worried they would no longer receive their pensions. But when they were demanding that the government find a solution, Abe was still talking about amending the constitution and an education law. His administrative focus and the concerns of the people were completely at odds, leading him to be mocked as the "KY prime minister."

Empathy for the People's Concerns

"The person in Taiwan who needs most to 'read the air' is President Ma Ying-jeou. What the people most want is a capable government, but Ma only cares about building a clean government," complains one Kuomintang county chief.

This county commissioner cannot help shaking his head and sighing whenever the four-month old Ma administration is mentioned. He says Ma assembled a cabinet of PhD's who don't understand the tribulations of the average person, and who are using decade-old policy tools to cope with the world economic downturn. When faced with storm damage, a severe decline in the stock market, and the scare over melamine-tainted foods and beverages, the Cabinet did not make it a priority to deal with these problems that most concerned the public, instead focusing on generally trivial matters.

At a time, for example, when the public was apprehensive over Chinese melamine-adulterated milk powder being sold in Taiwan and many enterprises were being hurt by the global financial crisis, the people looked to the government for appropriate responses. But President Ma instead talked about recognizing Chinese academic credentials, sparking criticism that he was disconnected from the people.

Political commentator Nan Fang-shuo contends that leaders must be sensitive enough to listen closely to all forms of public opinion and then interpret those views correctly. The key lies in having empathy, and setting aside one's upbringing, regional loyalties, class and educational background to become an average member of the public.

Former United States president Ronald Reagan had such a common touch. An actor by trade, Reagan had a keen sense of playing on the messages conveyed by television news and other programs. When he launched his "war on drugs" campaign, for example, he took inspiration from the popular U.S. television series "Miami Vice." The drug problem had existed for a long time, but the weekly drama helped generate a supportive mood among the public for a renewed anti-drug battle. Reagan chose an ideal moment to launch his campaign, and not only delivered positive results but also boosted his popularity.

Reading the 'Global Air'

Nan Fang-shuo emphasizes that it is even more important for national and corporate leaders to "create air," or, put another way, lead public opinion, with creative concepts they conjure up before the public does.

Leaders also must be able to sense more than their own countries' public mood. They have to be able to expand their vision and read the "global air," so that the directions charted by their administrations are farsighted and blaze bright futures for their countries.

Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is an example of having such a global vision. When Singapore first split from Malaysia and became independent, the tiny country with a weak economy was given little chance of future success. But Lee Kuan Yew assessed international trends and, in the 1960s and 1970s, he modeled the country after rapidly developing Taiwan. In the '80s and '90s, he elevated his vision and sought to learn from advanced countries such as the U.S., Japan and Western European nations.

The result is that Singapore was ranked as the second most competitive country in the world by Lausanne-based IMD in its 2008 World Competitiveness Yearbook, drawing closer to the top-ranked United States. IMD even predicted that 2008 would be the last time the U.S. held the top spot.

Developing the Right Instincts

The atmospheres found at a get-together with friends, in the workplace, or even in society as a whole are invariably composed of different "air" flows. Only with sufficient instincts to sense these different currents can one speak and behave appropriately and set suitable strategies.

That's why, from individuals and enterprises to national leaders, this ability to "read the air" will soon become the key to survival in this constantly changing modern world.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 變動時代的求生新關鍵 閱讀空氣