Thursday, January 25, 2007

Not Taking "No" For an Answer

Everyone knows about "the Japan that can't say no" idea. Today, I had an experience I've had rather frequently before in Japan where I encounter a Japanese person who won't take "no" for an answer. The general structure of the conversation is this:

JP = Japanese Person who wants you to do something you can't or don't want to do.

JP: Your student needs to cancel her lesson today and would like to come tomorrow.

Me: I'm afraid I'm busy tomorrow so I can't schedule a lesson for her then.

JP: She wants to come after 6:00 pm.

Me: I'm sorry but I'm especially busy after 6:00 pm.

JP: You're busy?

Me: Yes. Can she come next week?

JP: She would like to come tomorrow.

Me: I'm very busy tomorrow.

JP: You're too busy?

Me: Yes. I have other lessons.

(uncomfortable prolonged silence)

Me: (giving in first) Can she come next Thursday for her usual lesson?

JP: She would like to come on Friday.

Me: I'm sorry but I can't see her then.

(second uncomfortable silence)

Me: Please tell her I'm sorry I can't see her tomorrow.

JP: Okay, I'll tell her then.

As you can see, I'm pretty weak under the pressure of silence. I think this is a combination two things. First is the fact that I'm a teacher and any time I talk to a Japanese person, I feel it's my obligation to keep the conversation going. Second is because I was raised by a mother who made me feel like I was the most selfish person in the world if I didn't do everything I could to make everyone else happy even if I have to do so at my expense.

I don't have trouble asserting myself or making my opinions known but I do have problems saying "no" when I'm doing so for my own benefit. In this case, I was refusing a student who I don't really enjoy teaching because I already have 4 hours of lessons set up and that's going to be tiring enough without shoehorning her into the day. The main reason to turn her down is that it'll wear me out too much.

This problem is sufficiently an issue with me that I consider it a triumph every time I say "no" to someone because I don't feel like doing what they want for one reason or another. I'm sure this is a neurotic tendency but it's rather hard to overcome the conditioning I grew up with.

Despite a reputation for being polite and accommodating, the Japanese are just as capable of exerting pressure as anyone else. They just tend to do it in a more subtle fashion through repetition and silence rather than through volume or aggressiveness.


Helen said...

I had an experience with not taking no when I worked at my eikaiwa. I was what we called a split teacher, I worked in two schools...3 days in one, 2 in the other. To save money the company decided that they wouldn't have a manager in the school on the days that I worked there. They wanted me to answer the phones when I wasn't teaching. The manager and the Japanese Teacher spent an hour trying to browbeat me into agreeing to answer the telephones. It was a few years ago, but it went a bit like this...
"Helen, we want you to answer the telephone when it rings."
"No because I can't speak Japanese. And, isn't there an answering machine anyway?"
"We'll teach you what to say. "
"I won't understand what the person on the phone says."
"That's okay, just as long as you give them the message in Japanese."
"We think it's a good idea if you answer the phone."
"Isn't there an answering machine for that?"
"Japanese people don't like answering machines and don't leave messages."
"Well, then they'll call back!"
"We want you to answer the phone when you're not in class."
"No, I'm not able to do that."

Over and over it went, for more than an hour. I flatly refused. I still believe that I did the right thing. If I had been able to speak Japanese I might have been more willing, but I was a teacher. I had enough to do!

Shari said...

Wow, that's really outrageous. It seems that what they wanted you to do was act as a human answering machine...say the same thing as the answering machine.

You absolutely did the right thing. It must have been a really unpleasant situation for you to put up with!

While it is pretty "out there" on the ridiculousness scale, it's not particularly surprising. The Japanese staff at language schools have been known to try to milk as much out of foreign staff as possible. I guess they don't realize teaching is hard enough.

Shari said...

P.S. My husband just reminded me that he had one of these types of inappropriate browbeating experiences himself quite some time ago. His best friend (a very, very close friend) died in a car accident and he said he couldn't work the next day and his school pressured him to work when he called in. So much for sensitivity. :-p

Androo said...

Even though it's an old post, I'm thoroughly enjoying browsing some of your past experiences. They remind me somewhat of my private English lessons, though I only had a single student once a week.

This story actually reminds me of being in school in Japan. Halfway through a 6 month program, our Japanese ability was re-evaluated and we were assigned to different level classes. I had always been one of intermediate students more serious about my language study, so I took it as a personal victory when I was assigned to jump a couple of levels over most of my initial classmates. The placement test took place near the beginning of spring break and classes would resume a month later. As with any sort of long break, it takes a while to get back into the groove. I struggled for about a week and a half in the new class, but knew if I tried harder I could succeed. The problem is that I wouldn't get a chance. An administrator in the program called me and a couple of my classmates into the office to discuss something with us, and the conversation was eerily similar many others.
(All in Japanese) "Would you like to move down a level? It's easier"
No thanks, we can handle it. We just have to take it more seriously.
"Well, it's probably better if you move down a level."
No, it's ok. We'll do better on the next test.
"I'm sure you can do it if you try harder, but moving down would be better"
Well, I'm sure it would be easier, but we'd like to stay in the current level.

At this point, one of my classmates began getting understandably frustrated and switched to English. We all followed suit, as communicating complex emotions usually requires more confidence in the language.

The next 30 minutes were spent basically rehashing that same conversation, with the only highlight being us slightly raising our voices. We missed our entire lunch period and were basically forced to drop a level and resented it for the rest of our time there. I think we would have been far more understanding and it would have taken less time if they had said "based on your initial test scores, you can't handle this level. We're moving you down one" instead of phrasing it like we had an option.

Shari said...

Hi, Androo, and thanks very much for your kind words and telling your story. It really rang true to me and gave me an ironic smile at how predictable the Japanese can be in such situations.

It reminded me of a situation early on in my employment where I nearly was fired for refusing what I thought was a request to work on my day off. At the time, I just thought I was being asked if I'd be willing to do it. In retrospect, I realize it wasn't a request so much as a demand phrased as one.

As was the case with you, I was immensenly frustrated by the way in which things were done. One of these days, I'll have to write a specific post about the details of that incident so I remember it for posterity.