In the West, when someone’s telling us a story or an account of something, it’s considered polite to periodically make a small sound or remark to show we’re paying attention. A phrasal backchannel, if you want the linguistic term.
Multiply that by five or more and you have 相槌 (aizuchi), the Japanese conversational equivalent. The Japanese don’t just throw in an occasional “yeah” or “uh-huh,” they keep up a slow-but-steady stream of comments that can come across as either sycophantic or aggravating to many unprepared Westerners.
Being on the receiving end of 相槌 is like talking to that family friend who was always just a little too interested in what you said. It can also be misleading, as many foreign businessmen have learned the hard way over the generations — Westerners often think the “yeah, mm-hmm, uh-huh” means the Japanese are agreeing, when it really just means, “I get it, I follow you, I understand.”
Receiving is just passive, though. Being able to produce 相槌 is often expected of even non-native Japanese speakers, no matter the circumstance (or spoken language). For example, if you don’t make at least a halfhearted attempt at it while on the phone with someone you don’t know, the Japanese person will actually stop every few seconds — even midsentence — to confirm you’re still there. It can be frustrating, especially if you’re from a society where using acknowledging responses too often is considered annoying.
The only good news for foreigners who at least want to try to keep up with 相槌 is that narratives in Japanese leave pauses for the expected 「そっか」 or 「へええ」 or 「なるほど」, so with a little practice, anyone can do it. In time, you might even find yourself so accustomed to it that you expect it from your fellow Westerners, much like a friend of mine who found herself asking her mom to make more noise during their phone conversations because she’d become so used to it here.
There’s no danger of that happening to me. I’m not a fan, but am occasionally forced to grunt on the phone just to keep the call running smoothly. Some cultural differences are just hard to embrace.