Thursday, January 17, 2008

Run, Forrest(san), Run!

Yesterday evening while I was doing some late evening shopping at a local 99 yen shop, I saw a fellow do something which I've always felt was an "only in Japan" experience. First, it's important to set the scene. The shop is essentially a shoebox. It's probably no more than 15 feet wide (~4.5 m.) and 20 feet long (~6 m.) in terms of the longest stretch of space in each direction one can actually tread upon. Traveling from end to end of the store on the longest side at a normal stride would take less than 7 seconds.

As I was approaching the check-out, another customer walked up and stood in front of the unmanned cash register. An employee who was "at the back" of the store (that's about 4 seconds, to you and me) upon seeing the customer approach sprinted into action and attempted to "run" to the register to assist the customer. In mid-sprint, he knocked over a bunch of sundry goods piled on the end of the aisle. For those who haven't had the pleasure, many small Japanese stores have aisles capped and semi-blocked by half open boxes serving as ad hoc displays. They also serve as a challenging obstacle course for customers who grow rapidly bored spending time looking at products they might like to purchase. It gives the experience a festive "rat in a maze" feel and you can really feel like you've accomplished something if you manage to traverse the entire place without knocking something over. They also provide social interaction opportunities for employees and customers when items are invariably pushed over. Within seconds, helpful assistants usually rush over to pick them up and embarrassed customers apologize. It's all part of the colorful fabric of Japanese society which encourages all to be friendly and get to know one another through collisions with random objects.

The extraordinarily diligent employee in the 99 yen shop likely saved a total of half a second by running rather than walking, though he lost that gain because he had to pick up the items that toppled. Before anyone gets the idea that this is a stellar example of an attempt to provide the best service to the customer, let me say that I've gone to the same shop with different staff there and stood in the empty store and waited for a cashier for a minute before one decided to surface. This isn't about this superior service in this shop as 99 yen shops are hardly making the sort of cash that allows them to pay the sorts of salaries that allow them to train people in all the corporate niceties. There was, however, an older fellow in the shop at the same time who may have been a supervisor and it could be the young man was new and wanted to impress. I don't blame him. We all would likely do the same thing in his shoes.

When this fellow pointlessly and clumsily ran from one end of the shop to the other, it reminded me that the office ladies (often called "O.L.s") at my former office used to do the same thing. Well, it wasn't quite the same thing. The man in the 99 yen shop tried to actually run and the office ladies rarely knocked things over. He literally leaped from where he was to rush to the register. The office ladies did what can be called "the office girl trot". The trot seemed designed to provide the illusion of running by pumping legs and arms in an animated fashion while not actually increasing one's velocity more than what a quick stride would accomplish. Nonetheless, this sort of trotting and running across short distances in the office occurred daily, even when there was absolutely no reason to hurry.

I asked different office ladies on several occasions why they bothered to do this and they always said that it was to get there faster. When I pointed out that the office was sufficiently small that they were likely shaving no more than seconds off their time by trotting, they tended to shrug and smile. I'm not sure even they knew why they did it, though I had my guesses.

I figured the main reason was that they saw other people do it and they felt they should as well. It wasn't that they believed that it had much practical value. In fact, I'd wager that, if they sprinted from point to point every time they traversed the office in this fashion, they might save the company a whole half minute a day at the very most. In the end, I concluded that this running was more about the illusion of looking like one was extremely diligent or applying as much energy as possible to doing their work rather than actually saving time.

There may be people who sprint around the office back home, but I never worked in one where people did so. I think that a lot of folks in the U.S. would perceive such behavior as inappropriate, like running in the halls at school. The main problem with it is that running can be much nosier and more distracting as feet pound on the floor and footsteps while walking are more muted. I always knew when an office lady was "rushing" to give me a reschedule or some paperwork because it was clearly preceded by the pitter-patter of little feet trotting my way. At any rate, if anyone else has experience with this and has a better explanation for why employees run, I'd be very curious to hear it.


mike said...

I have only run at work twice. Both times some idiot had turned off the main power to my servers and network. I had a baseball bat and was tracking them down. :)

I've never worked in an office where people ran. I think that workers in the US, and perhaps elsewhere, don't feel the need...partly out of safety's sake, and partly because there is no need or desire to even give the illusion of rushing. For some of us, there is no "go-getter" personality, except in extreme circumstances. I don't think any reasonable boss in the US would demand such a thing.

When I was a contractor and would visit the Japanese company, I did frequently see the Japanese workers run. The American workers did fact, they seemed to go out of their way to "mosey". Like your Y99 store, the office was small, and it would take only about 10 sec to walk the longest dimension even with the cubicle obstacles.

Shari said...

I think that working is different in the U.S. in many ways (by and large, obviously, you can't categorize any group of people as having the same traits). Back home, the only thing bosses tend to worry about is results. If you mosey around the office, it doesn't say anything about your work back home. They tend only to care about whether you do what you should in a timely fashion and are reasonably professional in your attitude.

In Japan, they don't look at results so much as method - time spent in the office, perceived enthusiasm, and general attitude. People tend to get a lot of credit for trying hard. It's a lot more tolerant of the inability to do a job and get the best results, but it's a lot less tolerant of any indication that one isn't applying oneself in an acceptable fashion (like being tired, mopey, lethargic, or going home early too much).

I think that's why people run even when it's meaningless in terms of affecting the outcome of their work. It's an example of their attitude toward the job being a very positive one.

I never would run at work either, not even in Japan. I'd feel undignified and strange about it. However, I knew foreigners who did trot around the office as part of assimilating with the Japanese office culture.

That being said, I was a "go getter" in that I worked my tail off, but I didn't play along with the image of a hard worker. I just did the work far better than anyone might have reasonably expected me to.

lina said...

I was always "amazed" by the "oofice girl trot". And you see them not only in offices (in my case I saw them at the JR offices, post offices and banks) they did it when crossing the road. Why bother? It's like : wait, I'm late and I'm running to the train station, but I must run in the most ladylike way.

1tess said...

I loved your description of the shop. It sounds just like the little Korean store near my house. Though it is about the size you describe, they carry a huge variety of Korean and Japanese foods: fresh vegetables and sometimes fish, snacks, noodles, rice, flour, spices, cooking equipment, dishes, frozen dumplings, pastries, meats and fish, refrigerated items (tofu, miso, soft drinks, pickles, etc.). Often they have items displayed in boxes because there is not room on the shelves. The aisles are just about wide enough for 2 people who know each other well to pass politely. They also do a hopping business downloading and recording DVDs of Korean movies. The funny thing is that they have 3 shopping carts near the door. I have never seen anyone use them because they wouldn't fit anywhere except where they are parked. It always seems as if I've ventured into a foreign country when I shop there—the only white girl in the place! They are very friendly, but I've never seen them try to run in there.

tornados28 said...

I think it is absolutely done to give the impression that you are working hard and not at all to actually save time. It's just an allusion.

Kanagawa G said...

I think the "OL trot" is done to give the impression that they are hurrying, even if they are not. I had a female friend who worked in an office who actually received poor reviews because she didn't do "the trot" but actually walked fast (faster than 'the trot', I might add).

I also think that noise is an important part of the OL trot. You really need to shuffle and scrape to let everyone know that you are trying to give the illusion of hurrying.

On a different note, I am in the process of updating my oft-neglected blog. I'll let you know what the new address it.

Chris ( said...

Our secretary has been know to call from the station (a 2 minute walk away) to let us know she would arrive in 2 minutes. Then she does the OL trot from the elevator to her desk (a trip of less than 4 meters).

I think it's meant to send the message "Look! I'm late, but I'm trying! See how exhausted I am! So you can't be angry with me!"

There's a book by Professor Doi called Amae no Kozo (I think there is an English translation now - something like The Anatomy of Dependence) which explains this attitude rather well..