East and West

I’m reading a book now called “Confucius Lives Next Door.” It’s by T.R. Reid and about his experiences living in Japan (he was the Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post for several years back in the nineties). The book has some really interesting insights about Asian cultural dynamics and it’s making me miss Japan enormously. In one chapter he talks about the importance of polite discourse in Japanese and he asks a bunch of Japanese men what exactly they would say to someone they had to fire (an extremely rare occurrence in Japan).

Here is what they came up with-

“Tanaka-san, I hope your trip to work was pleasant this morning, and I hope you didn’t have the inconvenience of a long walk into the office from our humble company’s totally inadequate parking lot. Now, to get to the matter at hand: It has became a matter of somebody here being fired, Tanaka-san, and this relates to you.”

I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this- it’s so right on

At the same time, it got me thinking about circumstances in which the idea that the Japanese are unfailingly polite is somewhat of a paradox. For example, it’s totally acceptable while dining in a restaurant to loudly  bark out “Sumimasen!” (excuse me!) at the nearest waiter when you need something. It doesn’t matter if the waiter is clearly in

the middle of doing something else or standing on the other side of a crowded room. It’s still perfectly fine. I also remember it being very odd that one wasn’t expected to greet or say thank you to shopkeepers and other service professionals. When a supermarket cashier gives you your change for example, you just accept it and leave without saying a word. You also probably wouldn’t say anything when entering the store.

This is in stark contrast to Switzerland where if you don’t say “Bonjour,” it’s considered to be a major faux pas. Even if you are just going up to the dairy stocker to ask where they keep the sour cream, you’ve got to say it. You tap him on the shoulder, say bonjour and then ask your question. If you forget the bonjour part, there’s a good chance that he/she will say it pointedly to you before addressing your question.

I haven’t quite figured out the etiquette in Spain yet but it seems like they’re fairly keen on the whole greeting/giving thanks thing. I have noticed however, that it’s okay to get a bartender’s attention by yelling out “Listen!” which seems a bit brash to me. Culture and language are funny things.