Thursday, April 05, 2007


The students I've been testing by phone the past 3 evenings (and will continue to test one more night) are all doing freshman employee training at their company. As part of their training at this early stage of the game, they are studying "manners".

The Japanese have very formal ways of handling social situations and are more rigid in business situations than a lot of other cultures. For example, the handling of business cards is something that people have to learn in Japan. When someone gives you a card, you have to take a good look at it, read it, and generally show great regard for the card. In western countries, we tend to cram them in our pockets or write extra information on them. Neither of these things is appropriate in Japan.

It seems ironic to me that my students are spending days studying manners but none of those manners seem to make a transition into their dealing with me on the phone. I've literally spoken to thousands of students (likely about 10,000) on the phone and it's very rare for them to deal with me in anything resembling an appropriate fashion. Attempts to teach students proper phone manners are made in the orientation material they are sent prior to doing telephone lessons and this is reinforced when the teachers speak to them but it's all pretty fruitless.

Among the more troublesome of problems is the fact that a not insubstantial number of people fail to give their names at all when the call begins despite never having been introduced to the teacher nor having spoken to the teacher before. They also fail to say, "may I speak to (name of teacher)." I've overheard plenty of Japanese business calls and people always identify themselves and their company when placing calls so this isn't a cross-cultural difference. It's merely the students failing to apply the same level of manners to a call in English as they might a call in Japanese.

Additionally, it isn't uncommon for students to find it nearly impossible to say "goodbye" in response to the teacher saying, "goodbye." Ending a call can be extremely frustrating when you say, "thank you for speaking with me Mr. (name). Goodbye," and you're greeted with silence or the odd grunting sounds of someone struggling to figure out what to say.

I'm sure the largest part of the problem is the students are fairly terrified at the prospect of speaking English on the phone because they can't use body language to help them understand what is going on. However, it is baffling that so much of what should be common sense while speaking on the phone flies right out the window the minute the language changes.


CMUwriter said...

I am pretty sure that the Japanese would freak out over the fact that even though I can get new business cards anytime I want, I crossed off the old phone numbers on a good share of my business cards and wrote my new number on it.

Shari said...

I'm pretty sure they'd be appalled if you worked in Japan. They tend to be fairly "forgiving" of the ways of gaijins who are outside their range of influence.

My old company seemed to be constantly reissuing new business cards any time the tiniest of changes came up so they'd probably think it presented one poorly if one was writing one's own card. Fortunately, I was too low on the totem pole to ever be a part of that happy nonsense. :-)

Luis said...

In defense of the students, they are speaking in a foreign language, where simply getting across meaning often takes full concentration, not to mention they're probably nervous and often flustered, as you yourself pointed out. Observing the niceties requires further effort, not to mention one has to be taught these things as required courtesies and not just optional phrases. I continuously have to remind my students to add the word "mister" before my last name instead of just using the last name itself. True, this is a transference error of sorts. However, transference doesn't always happen, including positive transference, of say, telephone politeness or general cultural courtesies. This is not to say that students are blameless or that there's not some weird cultural thing going on here. However, I would guess that it's not intentional rudeness or neglect, and much more a simple language issue.

Shari said...

As I also pointed out, the students are given information to tell them how to begin the call and finish it. They are told to say:

"This is (name) of (company name). May I speak to (teacher name), please?"


"Thank you for your help, (teacher name). Goodbye."

So, they don't have a very good excuse beyond the terror of the situation or being illiterate in romaji.

The worst ones I've experienced will skip these steps multiple times. In the non-testing environment (teaching by phone), there are 6 lessons where some students repeatedly failed to follow the basic phone script despite being corrected and prompted by the teacher each time to say what was necessary.

These are the same types of people who can't be bothered to read the teacher's name (always written in katakana for their convenience and ease of understanding) off the page and make up some mutated hybrid or mumble out some mess. My boss, Darryl, was called "Mr. DeGraw" (a hybrid of his first and last name) and I get called a wide variety of names the most common of which is "Crary".

They simply don't attach the same level of attention and respect to speaking with a foreign teacher as they would a Japanese person and can't be bothered to make the tiniest effort to do things right even when it's all spelled out to them and they're spoonfed the necessary language.