Thursday, November 15, 2007


Last week, there was an interview between a foreign writer and a Japanese fellow who spoke passable English on "The Mystery Channel". The interviewer was doing something that used to drive me absolutely crazy when I first came to Japan and started teaching English. As the writer was offering his answer, the Japanese fellow kept grunting in affirmation or saying "yes" at the same time that the writer was speaking.

This is something that happened me a lot when I used to conduct telephone lessons. It would go something like this:

Teacher asks a question:

Teacher: Where...
Student: Yes.

Teacher: are you...

Student: Yes.

Teacher: from?

Student: What?

(Note: Students who do this the most persistently are paying so much attention to affirming that they are listening that they don't actually bother to listen.)

Teacher answers a question:

Student: Where are you from?
Teacher: I'm...

Student: uh..

Teacher: from...

Student: uh...

Teacher: Pennslvania, in the...
Student: yes...

Teacher: United States.
Student: Ah. (clearly not understanding)

In the U.S., if someone constantly talks over you or makes noises of affirmation while you are attempting to speak, it gives the you the impression that he or she really isn't really listening to your statement or is being impatient. When I was on the phone with students, this was such a pervasive problem that we eventually had to address this in the textbooks that we wrote so the students would understand the cross-cultural implications if they did this while speaking English.

When I later learned that Japanese is what I would ethnocentrically call an "insecure language" where constant affirmation is not only acceptable but a sign that one understands what is being said and is paying attention, it added some perspective to my experiences. If you listen to two Japanese people having a conversation, you'll hear the same constant stream of "yes" ("hai") and grunting along with a lot of "so desu ne" (essentially, "I think so, too"). From our perspective, there is a far greater frequency of such affirmation than really seems necessary and it can be very distracting to the western ear.

I should note that this situation seems to occur far more over the phone than in face-to-face conversations (in English). It also seems to happen a lot more with men than with women. I think part of the reason for this is that students are more nervous on the phone, but also that they are more focused on the experience of being with a foreigner when face-to-face than they are when on the phone. In other words, they respond on the phone in English in a manner which isn't so dissimilar from the way they'd react when on the phone in Japanese. Also, when I teach, I tend to ask questions that the student doesn't expect whereas in the phone lessons the students had prep sheets which told them exactly what questions were coming. That means they probably felt less obliged to pay very close attention to each and every word.

While I'm much more patient and understanding of this tendency than I initially was, I have to admit that it still gets on my nerves in the most extreme cases and I tell the students that they should wait until a sentence has completed and the speaker pauses to offer verbal affirmation that they understand.


tornados28 said...

I have noticed this as well. Japanese often make the grunting noise when listening to someone, especially on the phone. I am more used to it now and don't think of it as much but when you stop and listen to the grunting affirmation, it actually sounds pretty odd.

Miko said...

I don't mind the grunting - I do it myself, especially on the phone - but that teeth-sucking thing used to get on my nerves. Have you noticed that fewer people do it now? How strange, I wonder why it seems to be dying out.

Shari said...

The grunting, if it occurs too frequently, drives me up a wall. I'm none too fond of the teeth-sucking either. Both of these habits are ones I mainly experience with men, particularly middle-aged or older men. Fortunately, none of the two older gentlemen I teach seem to do these things and the other nine are women who also don't do these things.

I agree with tornados28 that it does sound odd to the western ear to hear all that grunting. I guess our equivalent is "uh-huh" or "mmm-hmm" and they may sound strange to the Japanese.

Thanks to both of you for your comments! As always, they're appreciated.

Kanagawa G said...

If I'm speaking Japanese, the grunting doesn't get to me. Sometimes I refrain from grunting on purpose to see what kind of reaction I get. I guess I'm a subersive conversationalist.

If a person does this in English, it sounds like they don't want to hear what you have to say and are trying to find a way to interrupt you.

I'd like to hear your take on "polite" forms of speech. A lot of Japanese are under the false assumption that there is no such thing as "polite" English because there aren't obviously formulaic set of expressions as Japanese. I recently participated in an international business meeting were the Japanese side came off as exceptionally rude because they didn't try to be polite.

Shari said...

Your comment is a wonderful one, Kanagawa G, as it opens up some very interesting avenues of discussion.

As for not offering the desired affirmation sounds/words in Japanese (or English) to a Japanese person, I've found it completely messes them up. I've had students who will simply stop talking every few words as they wait for me to say, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. For instance, I've had calls like this:

S: I'm Keichi Sato...(pause)
Me: (pause)...yes
S: of ABC Electronics...(pause)
Me: (pause)...yes
S: May I speak to...(pause)
Me: Yes (figuring he'll never finish)
S: Shari, please?

If I don't give them what they want, they dole out their information in drops until I explain that they need to finish the sentence before I will say anything.

I've also encountered Japanese people who speak English and are incredibly (and perhaps unintentionally) rude-sounding. As you say, it's hard for them to grasp that English is polite because it doesn't have a specific type of speaking associated with it (like keigo is for Japanese).

It's a vast and complex topic so I'll just give a few points here (knowing there is much more to it than I'm saying).

First, polite English is associated first and foremost (in my opinion) with tone. You can offer nearly any phrase and it'll be rude if it's said too bluntly, sharply, or with hostility. The attitude of the speaker has to be conveyed through the emotion behind the words.

Second, phrases have to be constructed as requests rather than as orders. The level of politeness relates to how much room the person you're speaking to has to refuse or rebuff you. For example:

If you're not too busy, would you mind getting a file for me, please?

Would you mind getting a file for me?

Would you get that file for me, please?

Please get me that file.

The first statement incorporates the most wiggle room for refusal as it acknowledges a condition by which one might reasonably refuse (being too busy). The second also allows for the fact that the person may indeed mind doing you a favor.

Of course, the obvious polite words such as using "would", "could", "thank you", and "please" are a part of the equation but one can be rude and still use all the right words if the tone is wrong and no attempt is made to acknowledge the ability of the other party to disobey your will or acknowledge their immediate concerns.

There are a vast number of other issues like responding politely with interest by asking follow-up questions or having correct responses to things. Japanese people seem to have a lot of trouble with this as well (likely because the typical range of response is limited in Japanese but is varied in English).There's a huge problem with businessmen who come across as immensely self-involved when they speak English because they don't react properly. Consider these reactions:

Is that so?
I'm sorry to hear that.
Oh, no!
I see.
How awful!

If you ask a Japanese student of English which one to use if someone says, "I lost my wallet," most of them won't know which would be perceived as the most polite reaction.

I've also found that Japanese people come across as rude because they don't know that their English translations are a problem because they don't know the connotations. I can't tell you how many times a student has said "I know" when they mean "I understand". When they confuse these, "I know" comes across like 'you've just wasted my time telling me something of which I was well aware.'

My main feeling is that Japanese language is very obviously polite based on various word forms but English is a very subtle thing in this regard. The Japanese speak politely based on the relative status of the involved parties, but English speakers are attending to a broader range of factors such as showing interest, acknowledging other people's needs and showing gratitude and patience. Applying these considerations is often something which is highly situational and most Japanese people don't like that because they prefer a formula they can memorize and regurgitate on cue.

To say there is no such thing as polite English because it does not take the same form as polite Japanese is absurd and highly ethnocentric. It's that sort of thinking which keeps Japanese people from ever learning and using English as well as people in Europe or other places where they speak it so well as a second language.

Thanks for the great comment!

Miko said...

I'm a stickler for manners (well, in other people, if not myself!) and I tend to err on the side of teaching overly polite English. I may be doing some of my students a disservice by doing so, but I'd still rather they spoke too politely than sound rude.

I do think that the tone of some conversational textbooks, expecially - sorry - American English ones aimed at younger people, is just too casual.

Actually, now that you mention it, I've just finished teaching all of my adults that the phrase "I don't know" - which is probably one of the first things they learn to say in English - is rarely used in polite conversation by native speakers, at least not where I come from. Instead, we tend to use much vaguer expressions such as "I'm not sure." English can be just as vague and ambiguous as Japanese, in fact I'd say more so at times!

Shari said...

The thing about textbooks is that you can't really know who is behind them. All of the textbooks my company made were "American English" but the main authors were a Japanese woman who spent a lot of time in England for her English skills and an Australian. I was the only American English speaker and I was third on the totem pole and my comments regarding changes were often disregarded in favor of what the Japanese boss preferred. Just because a book claims to be "American" doesn't mean it really represents American speech patterns or was crafted by a native of the United States. Sometimes, the books are what other people think Americans speak like.

That being said, American English is different from other flavors of English. Americans are casual people who discard a lot of formality in the interest of equalizing the status of the parties involved. It's why we call our bosses by their first names and discard titles. It's an off-shoot of the culture and the history. Overt or rigid formality can be seen as pretentious, stuck-up or subservient.

As an aside, I have never taught my students "I don't know". I tend to teach them "I don't understand" because it tends to be a much more useful phrase. Personally, I tend to preface such statements with "I'm sorry but (I don't know)." or "I'm afraid (I don't know)" but that level of extension is a bit much for lower level students to get out early in their learning.

I believe the situations in which each language is vague are different though I can't say for certain. I think Japanese tends to be vague in relatively straightforward situations (like refusals) whereas English is only vague when a party is willfully attempting to be unclear or equivocating. Japanese is vague even when people actually mean to be clear. That being said, it's mainly vague to people who aren't native speakers. Most Japanese people can read between the lines of their own language.

Miko said...

I really understand about the lack of formality, and the egilatarian attitudes in the workplace, but do any American workers really believe that they are of the same status as the boss, and can say and do anything they like to their superiors? Not likely! There are lines that cannot be crossed. The whole "equality" thing is a charade, and one that unfortunately fools many Japanese people into thinking that they don't need to bother learning to "read between the lines" when it comes to English. Believe me when I tell you that my Japanese friends and relatives are utterly mystified at the way that gaijin relate to one another (or so they say after observing me chatting with fellow foreigners), and are also amazed to learn that an awful lot of the communication that goes on between foreigners takes place via "ishin denshin," a kind of mutual telepathy that many of them fondly believed to be exclusive to the Japanese.

I see your point about the textbooks. I've seen the same thing in some Japanese books aimed at English speakers, and been horrified at some of the expressions being taught (for example, the English "Does this belong to you?" is transliterated as "kore, kimi no?" which would cause mortal offense to anybody but a close relative or a household pet). I sometimes wonder about the people who write those books. Now I know. By the way I moonlight as a consultant for a children's textbook publishing company, and although I think the texts (written by American-educated Japanese) are basically quite good, I'm annoyed at the lack of "pleases" and "thank yous" in them. However, I don't get much say in the matter, and even if I did I'd look hopelessly old-fashioned.

Shari said...

The equality isn't about saying and doing anything you like. It's about a recognition that your status as people is the same, not your relative "power" in a given situation. I have always related to my bosses as equals though I had to defer to their wishes in a disagreement since I respected that they got the last word. This isn't fake. In fact, it is a recognition that we are essentially the same but someone has to have the deciding vote or nothing will get done in situations where there is an impasse and that is the boss.

If you haven't experienced it, it's hard to understand but it is not illusory. I could say anything or do anything appropriate to my bosses but, as with all relationships, there are boundaries. Those boundaries don't relate to status but rather to an objective recognition of the reality of the way business works. My bosses never dictated what I must do and I never mouthed off to them. They asked, I answered. We disagreed and I'd "win" if I made my position look stronger.

American labor is essentially protected by labor laws and regulations from the sort of bullying and demands for deference you see in Japan. A boss can't just do or say anything he wants to an employee nor can he make just any request. Employees simply do not have any sort of regard for their bosses as "superior" in any fashion though they may have no choice but comply with requests. While there are probably some professions where people behave as lackeys or ingratiate themselves to their superiors (particularly in upper echelons where power playing is more important), you don't tend to see it much in jobs in the U.S.

It is possible to confer as equals even when your relative status in a company is not equal. If both parties are mature adults, there is rarely a need for one party to yield to the absolute power of the other as a compromise or mutual decision can be reached. Dictatorial bosses (of which I had one) don't last.

I didn't know that you'd had any experience working in the U.S. from which to draw conclusions about how the working environments are there. I'd be very interested to hear about your experiences and how they have affected your view of the 'fake' egalitarian nature of working there. I think an outside perspective would prove quite enlightening. In fact, outside perspectives from my students (about their views of the U.S.) have always been of great interest to me as I think "outsiders" see things you never would see from the "inside".

I'm not sure of what aspects you're referring to when you mention "reading between the lines" in English so it might help if you could offer me a hypothetical.

Many thanks for your excellent comments!

Mari said...

I agree with your views on polite English. I've been asked about things like that in the past.
Hope you don't mind, I linked to your site.

Shari said...

Hi, Mari, and many thanks for commenting and linking to me. I'll be linking to you as well as I found your blog quite interesting!

Miko said...

Well, I don't know too much about the work situation in the US, but three words sums it up for me: "hire and fire!" I'm in correspondence with people there who literally live in fear of losing their jobs (which they detest, by the way, along with their bosses) because they so badly need the health coverage. It does sound like a brutal system ... hardly one that engenders an atmosphere of mutual respect and equality or whatever. But I must bow to your superior wisdom in this matter, as I have never worked outside of Japan and NZ in my life, and I have been spoiled so far.

I don't do bosses very well, and regard them as a necessary evil. Fortunately most of them stay out of my face and go out of their way to avoid antagonising me (I'm swift to leave unsatisfactory job situations)and very few have tried to tell me what to do. I really appreciate this, and in return I WORK MY BUTT OFF for them.

I never sign work contracts, either, come to think of it.

Shari said...

It's sad that your friends are having a hard time and that you didn't have first-hand experience (though I'm betting you don't regret that ;-) ) as I'm sure your perspective would be truly interesting.

The health care situation in the U.S. is terrible. I keep hoping it'll be fixed but I know it's unlikely since insurance companies are so powerful in the U.S. that they are going to keep politicians in their pockets.

I've never had a problem with any of my bosses in the U.S. or Japan. In fact, I owe my former gaijin boss for helping me keep my job because the Japanese president had a "3 years and you're out" rule for gaijin employees and he lobbied to keep me on and stop this arbitrary rule. I think bosses can be a "necessary evil" or they can be very good allies. I've been fortunate in that I've only experienced the latter amongst the five bosses I've had (excluding the bitchy Nova manager I had for a short time when I first came to Japan, but she wasn't so much a boss).

Miko said...

You ask about a hypothetical "reading between the lines" situation in English, well I have so many that I don't know where to start! But I'll tell you about an interesting one that happened a couple of years ago - it's especially memorable for me, because it nearly lead to a business meltdown. Sorry, it's a loooong story, and I don't wish to betray any confidences, so I'll pare it down to the basics and hope you can follow:

A Japanese acquaintance of mine, let's call her J., has a business relationship with a small Australia-based company. One day J. makes a small but non-contractual business request of A.

A. responds with obvious (to us!) reluctance, but agrees to go along with it. (Key phrases here are "This is a very busy season for us, but ..." "We would appreciate it if you would let us know more in advance next time, because ..." "We normally wouldn't do this, but ...")

J. happily assumes that A. is ready and willing to receive such a request, and responds by making more and more such requests over time. A., however, responds with more and more reluctance over the same time frame. Unfortunately J. is oblivious to the clues, and blithely assumes that all is well.

One day J. goes too far, and A has had enough. A. explodes! A. sends an angry and very informal email to J., accusing her of all sorts of trickery and treachery, and henceforth cutting off all business relations. J. is shocked to the core - everybody on the Japan side is shocked. The fallout is bad enough to affect several other related businesses, in fact.

At this stage, I was finally hauled in (by a bewildered J., who couldn't understand why a formerly friendly business associate had suddenly turned on her out of the blue) to do some damage control. I was given all the emails and faxes that passed between J. and A. and also the details of all the phone calls that took place between the two companies.

The whole thing made for fascinating, if somewhat depressing, reading. To me, the downward spiral was obvious from the start (and I've no doubt in my mind that you would agree) because I was able to read between the lines.

In fact, it was almost like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I wanted to avert my eyes! I even got angry with J. and said "how can you not have noticed?" To me, it was blindingly obvious.

Anyway, repairing the damage was not easy. J. really and truly valued that business relationship, and didn't want to lose it. In the end (at my recommendation) she had to go all the way to Australia bearing gifts to make amends, and fortunately they worked things out between them.

Later, J. told me that she learned that "foreigners are hard to deal with, because they don't tell you what's on their minds." In fact, to some Japanese, they must seem downright ... inscrutable! Ha ha ha!

By the way, who do you think was "wrong" in this case? To my mind, I think that the onus was on the Australian side to make a direct refusal - none of this would've happened if this had been made clear from the start. But perhaps it wasn't so easy to do, with a valued business associate. I'll never know for sure.

Kanagawa G said...

Wow, it looks like I opened quite a can of worms! I apologize for commenting and then taking leave during the wonderful responses.

I'd just like to make a quick comment about politeness and learning at school. It seems that the majority of Japanese are taught to use "had better" as a suggestion as an equivalent of したほうがいい in Japanese. This always rubs me the wrong way because it sounds to me like a mild threat.

Hey, kanagawa G, you had better take an umbrella today.

Oh yeah? Says you and what army?

Shari said...

This is a truly fascinating scenario which I'd like to share with some of my students to see if they "get it" or not. I'm guessing they won't but it'll be interesting as an exercise in business exchanges (I have several who are seriously studying business).

I agree entirely with you that the Australian was at fault and behaved badly in the end. He should have said much earlier on that he was very sorry but he couldn't fulfill her request as it was outside the agreed upon arrangement. Further, he could have offered to do what she wanted for an added fee if he wanted to assist but not be taken advantage of.

Many thanks for taking the time to share that!

Shari said...

KanagawaG: Heh, heh. You give 'em hell for forcing you to remain dry. You *are* quite the subversive. ;-)

I actually have communication problems with vocabulary choices even between my husband and I. I say, "you didn't listen to me" and I mean 'you didn't heed what I told you'. He takes "listen" to mean that the sound waves emanating from my mouth have been received by his ears and the signal was received. I think this is a regional difference. People from my hometown (Pennsylvania) use certain terms differently than people from his part of the country (California).