Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Coddle Me, Or Else

Previously, I posted about a temporary student who was preparing to work in a major international hotel. She had planned for four lessons with me then to sally forth into the exciting new world of information dispersal. It turns out that it was a bit more intimidating than she expected and she decided to come back for another round of lessons.

She told me that she hadn't actually had to offer any information to foreigners yet but she has had to field questions from Japanese guests. The types of questions that she's been asked will be a problem for her if they are in English so she wanted to learn how to deal with the same types of questions in English. I must say though that I felt pretty good when she said, "now I know why you were teaching me those things!" I grilled her pretty hard but now she knows the guests may turn up the heat even higher.

One of the things she asked me about was how to get across various greetings that she is expected to offer guests. People who don't reside in Japan may not know this but it is common for the staff at restaurants and shops to say "irrashaimase" (which is the equivalent of "welcome" in English but there is no direct translation). This is more of an acknowledgement of a customers' or guest's entry into the establishment than a true greeting. My student is required to say "welcome", welcome back", or "good morning/afternoon/evening" to foreign guests when they enter the hotel.

My student wanted to confirm that the translations that were used for these greetings were correct because she noticed that quite a few guests seemed rather embarrassed when such greetings were offered. I explained to her that part of the problem is that westerners aren't used to being addressed each time they enter or exit a place. Usually, people greet you as you approach them for an interaction (like signing into the hotel). If you greet them, they also feel obliged to respond. With multiple greetings from various staff on multiple floors (this is a huge hotel with various annexes), it requires the guest to respond again and again or feel rude in not replying.

The most interesting thing she told me about this greeting business was unrelated to dealing with foreigners and had to do with a Japanese guest. It seems that the hotel believes repeat guests deserve special recognition. For new guests, it's okay to simply say "welcome" and "welcome back". For repeat visitors, the staff are supposed to recognize their faces and say "good morning/afternoon/evening." Even new staff members have to do this and it is accomplished by having pictures of those guests' faces and making the staff memorize them.

In one instance, a new employee failed to recognize a middle-aged Japanese businessman who was a repeat guest and he was so incensed by the young woman's failure to offer a more familiar greeting (she just said "welcome") that he insisted the hotel fire her. The hotel moved her out of a position where she would greet guests but it is amazing how childish this man was. When an employee failed to coddle him in the fashion he expected, he tried to get her fired for a very inconsequential "slight".


Tokyo Rosa said...

the hotel probably uses that story as a scare tactic to get new employees to take the job seriously...although i have to say that i found, working in ginza with some extraordinarily wealthy and high-powered students, that the older, successful businessmen were almost uniformly childish when it came to such things, so it isn't entirely out of the realm of possibility in japan.

i can't think of a time when i've seen a successful businessman in the u.s. being so petty--but it probably happens all the time here too!

Shari said...

While I'm sure there are some successful business people in the U.S. who are really childish about being treated with extreme deference, there are cultural differences that make it less likely among westerners.

Since status is a part of Japanese culture (and overt recognition of that status among subordinates a given), they're more likely to be demanding. In western cultures, we pretend there is no status difference but rather a power difference. People can't act as if they deserve special treatment without being viewed poorly in the west whereas it's something they can demand in the east.

Nontheless, it's my thoroughly ethnocentric conclusion that it's a juvenile manifestation of an insecurity. ;-)

Sean P. Aune said...

Again...fraid this is universal. Well, I say "universal" but am only speaking of Japan/USA really. I see it all the time in airports and hotels, and yes, I have even been a little bit demanding with hotels, but have never asked for an employee to be fired, just don't give me attitude when I check in.

Especially with frequent flier type people, and hotel benefits club members, you see all sorts of insane demands, and you also hear "Don't you know I'm a Gold level member?!?" That's when I like to whip out my PLATINUM level membership card and treat the employees nicely :-p

Shari said...

While I can accept that people are demanding worldwide (and I know in the U.S. that employees are increasingly treated like dirt), I have to imagine that few people would get irate over something as little as whether they were greeted by "welcome" or "good morning". Sure, I can see people being impatient or pushy but it's not nearly as tiny a thing as what that guy got worked up about.

In the U.S., this bad behavior is based on the imbalance of power between the person paying and the person receiving the money. In Japan, it's about that as well but it's also about some puffed up middle-aged businessman who wants his ass kissed because he's 50 years old and a bucho now.

Sean P. Aune said...

"it's also about some puffed up middle-aged businessman who wants his ass kissed because he's 50 years old and a bucho now."

*laugh* True, I forgot about the "I have gray hair now, meaning you must kiss ass!" factor. I never have understood that one. I mean, there's respecting your elders, but it does get a bit much over there.

Emsk said...

Oh yes, I recognise this puffed-upness at my eikawa. Knowing no Japanese when I came here to work, I found it a struggle to remember every student's name, especially as I was not hot-wired to cope wth the language as I am when teaching Italian students. Unfortunately, we don't keep photos of students - which would help - but management were nonetheless annoyed that it took so long to remember everyone's name.

I have what I considered a fail-safe line for large classes of new students, which goes along the lines of while I remember faces, names will take a little longer (especially given the fact that you're learning a new job in another country, but you don't tell the class that, of course). Most students are sympathetic, but during lobby talk one schoolgirl complained to her friend, in Japanese, that I'd met her the week before but couldn't remember her name. This was all relayed back to me by my head teacher.

One thing I've learnt is something I gleaned from a Scottish friend of mine. She runs her own gallery/shop on a Greek island while her Italian partner runs a bar nearby. It's the kind of place that people return to year in year out, and it's mainly Italian and British visitors. While the Italians are less likely remember individuals given their more sociable natures, my friend finds that the Brits will remember meeting her perhaps three years before when they visited her shop, bought one card and chatted about her exciting ex-pat life. It would be fair to say that she's been part of their vacation, but again my friend meets so many people every summer and doesn't remember all of them, even if they've had an hour-long chat. Nonetheless, she always enthusiastically replies in the affirmative when they ask if she remembers them. This goes a long, long way.

People love to feel exclusive, whether they're bucho, schoolkid or tourist. What a terrible story about teh hotel guy though! There surely comes a time to grow up and when your management should stand up for you.

Shari said...

Emsk: Hi there and thanks for your many comments (which I'd hoped to address in some fashion before but I haven't been having a good weekend).

The story you shared is very interesting, particularly the part about the student who complained that you didn't remember her name. The funny thing about students is that they know that you are one person who has contact with many and it should be easy for them to remember you but harder in the reverse. Despite this, you'd be surprised how many students NEVER got my name right. In fact, they couldn't even be bothered to look at the katakana on the profile they were given and read it off properly.

I find it incredibly ironic that students hold you to a ridiculous standard of remembering them but they can't be bothered to remember you.

Many, many thanks for all your kind and wonderful comments and for reading my blog!