There is a phrase in Japanese—isn’t there always? Kuuki ga yomenai means “cannot read the air.” Nowadays it is often reduced in text messaging simply to KY.
The implication is plain enough: it is when someone is seemingly impervious to the current need, the social and cultural feeling that is expected. It’s when someone “doesn’t get it” where “it” means the invisible, unspoken sensibility that brings solidarity and implicit understanding. It’s when someone is more than a little awkward about the _we_ when “we” creates an “us. Few cultures value the implicit more than the Japanese but there is much the same in Tamil—and I suppose we all have this. Every culture values emotional intelligence finding its way into practice and situational need.
The phrase aun no kokyu, which means something like “in perfect unison” or anmokuchi, “tacit knowledge, are much more positive in comparison to “cannot read the air.” That is reserved for a greater incapacity, almost as if it is something someone cannot do rather than a momentary awkwardness.
What’s important about the idea, I think, is not the criticism it levels but rather the sense that we share the air and the air has _its own_ qualities that are neither individual nor merely invented. The “air” has a “just there” quality and it takes a redolent sensibility to share an experience that’s implied. When someone can’t read the air then the emotional illiteracy has consequences for all.
The downside of such a collective imperative should be likewise obvious: we can feel pressured, stagnant, repressed because there is an expectation to “get it” or get along with what is expected. We also need to allow others less familiar with situations or culture to feel included, welcomed, and respected.
The shadow, however, is here at the forefront: the “not reading the air” is what we all feel and the hidden light of that shadow is that we can want people to feel more accepted and more fluent in the social circumstance. We can be rooting for the implicit without being coercive or reproving. That level of nuance too requires an emotional empathy that we hope for and can learn to evolve in ourselves.
We here all know that Trump is a malignant narcissist. You don’t need to have a clinical professional degree to see that his is no ordinary selfishness. It isn’t merely that he is immune to others’ needs or feelings or that he calculates them solely for his own benefit; it is that his sociopathy demands that others are to blame, that others must be punished for whatever does not suit his self-aggrandizement. Those around Trump read his air and become the toadies and swamp creatures that cause us to wretch.
But never has the air seemed so toxic as it does around this man even as his media machine and sycophants breathe it all in.
And this time the air cares not who is reading it. It’s what’s in the air that we must read as our shared need to take care of each other when our leadership is so grievously impaired.