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For the longest time, I thought 素直 meant "honest" (because my dicitionary gave it as one of several meanings). Now I've also seen the meaning "docile". and now I'm totally confused. Eg. in the sentence

素直になればいい

Are you meant to become more honest (to whom)? Or more obedient (to whom/what)? Does it depend on the context?

Is it possible my confusion stems from the fact that we would express these things completely differently in English?

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素直 has a few subtle uses. If someone is describing another person as "sunao", they could mean honest, I suppose, but it might more accurately be described as "being honest to oneself" ... in other words, to be accepting of some fact, (as opposed to being argumentative about it, which is where the sense of being "docile" fits in with the various uses of the word) In anime where I've heard it used, it's generally someone asking another person to accept their situation with grace. That ties in with obedience if the situation is that of a subordinate to a superior. If you're arguing with your higher-ups, you are definitely not "素直"

Common phrases that include 素直:

sunao na hanashi: a frank, honest discussion

sunao na hito: a mild-mannered/calm/open-minded/frank person (depends on context)

sunao ni naru: calm down/be honest (with yourself)/give in

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    「素直な話」って言います?普通、「正直な話」って言うんじゃないですかね.. – Chocolate Apr 18 '18 at 0:14
  • Sorry, forgot to mark it as correct - it has helped me a lot! – Prune Jun 12 '18 at 12:02
  • @Chocolate, type "素直な話" into google search.. you get many results, all in Japanese – ericfromabeno Jun 12 '18 at 14:50
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    23件しかないやん! それ "many" なん? google.co.uk/… しかも違う意味で使ってたり。「単純にヴィクトルが素直な話」とか – Chocolate Jun 12 '18 at 14:57
  • so the question becomes, does 23 google results invalidate 素直な話, or validate it? The only reason I listed it, is because I have personally heard it used in conversation with a native Japanese speaker. I understand it's rare, but that doesn't mean it's wrong. – ericfromabeno Jun 12 '18 at 15:03
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I have always understood sunao as being honest, open, dropping your pride, ego and just being honest with and about yourself and what you feel, which seems to fit most situations it is used. Having feelings for someone and not telling them, harbouring resentment and such things are not sunao. I see 素直に話を聞いて differently from some explanations (obedience etc); to me it means “Listen with an open heart, put aside all of your fears, pride, worries, resentments and ego, and listen. It’s not about who is right, put all that aside and just hear me out.” For me, Sunao struck a nerve because when I learned the word I realized that most of my life I had not been sunao in so many important situations. I guess a counterpoint is hikyou; if you are being hikyou then you are not being sunao. That might be a distraction. When I became sunao in relationships it helped me a lot. Isn’t it interesting how the Japanese have been misunderstood as dispassionate and stifled, when they have this terrific vocabulary for emotional and mental states (think of all the 擬態語for feelings). I have a suspicion that the Western influence, new rationalised mentality and industrialisation since Meiji has created these internal conflicts for the Japanese. They want to be sunao but they cannot tell their boss, teacher or parent what they think because of the new industrial hierarchy, so they feel stress, guilt, depression and despair as they give in to society’s demands. A movie that I think illustrates sunao in relationships is Hula.

  • PS. If a boss, colleague, partner or other person says「素直に話聞いて」in order make a person do as they say or take a superior/controlling position.. that would be gaslighting. Whether gaslighting is seen as an abusive form of manipulation or a legitimate form of manipulation (along with 甘え) is a whole other conversation! – Richard Nakane-Emmerson Apr 22 at 7:00
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Short answer

素直 is the state of "keeping it real".

Explanation

The way I perceive it, 素直 implies thinking or actions are pure in that there's no hidden, often self-serving motivation. In other words, "keep it real".

My version of @ericfromabeno 's examples:

素直になる: "keep it real with oneself", "be honest with oneself", "admit that one's perceived sense of entitlement is different from reality"

素直な人: Someone whose thinking or actions don't hide anything, especially selfish motivations. Someone who "keeps it real".

素直な話: conversation where all sides are open and there isn't any unspoken selfish motivation. Conversation where all sides "keep it real" with each other.

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    「素直な話」って言います?普((以下同文 ところで例が上の人と同じなのは偶然? – Chocolate Apr 18 '18 at 0:15
  • ご指定いただきありがとうございました。偶然ではないですね。上の方の参照を入れるのを忘れていました。今編集しました。 – Otomatonium Apr 18 '18 at 16:52
  • 「素直な話」は、あまり使われていない表現みたいですが、グーグルではなくはないようです。それにしても私の説明ではやはり「話」より「対話」に近いと今思いました。 – Otomatonium Apr 18 '18 at 16:57
  • *「ご指定」ではなくて、「ご指摘」でした。 – Otomatonium Apr 18 '18 at 17:04

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