People who really know me know that I thrive on reality TV. I quote Real Housewives dinner party fights like they’re gospel and devour even the most staged Keeping Up With The Kardashians subplots. From The Bachelor to Vanderpump Rules, Drag Race to Southern Charm, Below Deck to Summer House, I live for real-life drama — just not when it directly affects me.
So, when my friend started pushing me to watch Terrace House, a Japanese reality TV show where, as she put it, "the contestants are really respectful, and nothing dramatic happens," I was like, Have you met me? Cut to 2018, and Netflix has started streaming Terrace House in the U.S. and Mariah Smith, one of my favourite reality TV re-cappers, is reviewing the show on The Cut. I was still skeptical, but definitely intrigued enough to watch.
The premise of Terrace House is bafflingly simple: It’s a show about six strangers, men and women, living together in a beautiful house in Japan with beautiful cars. Nothing is scripted, and cast members on Terrace House still have to go about their daily responsibilities, like school or work. Viewers just observe how these coolheaded people interact. In addition to the housemates, a cast of Japanese celebrities serve as commentators who watch the show in a studio and dissect the action.
Within minutes of watching the first episode of Terrace House: Opening New Doors, I was transfixed. As many fans have pointed out, it’s a slow-paced show, and there are no confessional interviews or added music to emphasise drama, which is a far cry from the bombastic nature of American reality TV. I became so obsessed with Terrace House that I started to download the episodes to watch on my subway ride home from work each day. But, as I watched, I realised that there’s a subtle aspect of the show that has me hooked: the sounds.
As the housemates arrive, you can hear every inhale and mouth noise, or shuffling of their feet. (Their microphone setup must be meticulous, and I recently stumbled on a subreddit hypothesising exactly how they capture so much audio.) Meals are masterpieces of sound, and listening to them chop cabbage, prepare simple soup, pour cereal, or just drink beer is delightful. During conversations, they’re even-keeled and for the most part very kind, even when they’re drunk and expressing their frustrations towards one particularly deadbeat roommate (ahem, Yuudai). To me, it sounds like ASMR.
If you’re not familiar with ASMR, it stands for auto sensory meridian response, and it’s best described as "a flow-like mental state" that's triggered by a very specific "non-threatening" sound or visual. There’s myriad videos on YouTube of people speaking in hushed voices, or touching and crinkling specific objects, that people watch because they like the sounds and feeling of someone paying attention to them. Nobody quite knows why ASMR is so relaxing, but experts say it’s likely due to a release of neurotransmitters like endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. Prior to Terrace House, ASMR videos and triggers never really did it for me. But now, I can't stop listening to these calm, well-mannered people speak Japanese.
For some context, I don’t speak Japanese, but I did grow up in Beijing, so my ear is attuned to the turbulent, sometimes jarring tonal nature of Mandarin. My native language is English, which is not always that calming, either, especially given the rollercoaster of intonations, accents, and volumes that Americans tend to use. On the flip side, Japanese sounds staccato and smooth to me. And because I don’t understand what they’re saying (though I do read the subtitles), the sound of their voices serves a different purpose: It's calming because it’s just noise.
According to Craig Richard, PhD, an ASMR researcher and founder of ASMR University, what I’m describing is a classic ASMR trigger. "Before I learned about ASMR I used to listen to foreign language audiobooks (of any language I did not understand) to help me fall asleep," he told me via email. In fact, a few of Dr. Richard’s favourite ASMR podcasts are in Korean, which he doesn’t speak.
ASMR triggers can be anywhere, and for some people, they are accidental or random. "There is an ASMR trigger type called inaudible or unintelligible ASMR, which is someone just making up words in a soft voice or whisper just to trigger ASMR," Dr. Richard said. Certain ASMR videos feature people telling a rambling story that doesn’t make sense, but sounds good, he says. In other words: When it comes to ASMR, it’s not what the person's saying, but how they're saying it.
Dr. Richard is a fellow reality TV fan, and said he's a long-time Real World, Road Rules, Survivor, and Big Brother viewer. After watching two episodes of Terrace House: Boys and Girls In The City, he agreed that it sounds "relaxing and engaging," particularly compared to the reality TV we're used to in the States. "Guests are low key, [and have] gentle dispositions, especially compared to Big Brother," he said. "Too bad they don't do solo camera confessions (like in Big Brother); that would probably be super relaxing (as long as they don't do it in shout-y style, which Big Brother does)." Interestingly, WhisperingLife, one of the first YouTube ASMR artists, started her channel because she loved listening to whisper clips from Big Brother, he told me.
If you're into reality TV, or are just looking for something to entertain you in your free time, consider this one more reason why you should watch Terrace House. At the end of the day, when I'm trying to unwind on my hectic commute, listening to my make-believe friends on Terrace House calmly gab about their dreams is all it takes to pacify me — at least until I get home and watch people throw drinks in their friend's face on Vanderpump Rules.
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