“Not another cup of coffee,” I muttered to myself as a steaming mug of “kohi” was placed in front of me. I wondered how I could exercise proper politeness when I couldn’t stand the bitter brew. There I sat in the principal’s office, waiting for the obligatory greeting and welcome that characterized each visit to a Japanese middle school.
My wife and I were in our second year of teaching in Japan. The year was 1987. We had mainly taught individual and group English conversation lessons at a juku, or after-school school, in the small town of Obihiro on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The second year, however, my boss was running for a seat on the local city council. He had two quite rare “birds” in his hand: two gaijin (foreign) English teachers to “lend” to the Obihiro public schools.
This would ostensibly increase international understanding and, in the process, build goodwill and support among the citizenry. Good for winning elections.
What had I Gotten into?!?
The job entailed visiting each kumi, or class, in each of Obihiro’s ten middle schools. Since each school had between six and ten kumi, my job was to be an itinerant goodwill ambassador, seeing kids in each kumi maybe three or four times in a year.
As a young man with aspirations to be a teacher, it was not exactly what I had in mind!
This was especially true since at first the classroom teachers used me as if I were a tape recorder to read the daily textbook dialogue rather than letting me engage the students in conversation and actually teach them some English.
But the Hardest Part?
And then there was the coffee! This really challenged my capacity to exercise politeness.
Part of the ritual of a foreign teacher coming to a Japanese public school was to introduce the teacher to the kochosensei (principal) before classes started. Typically, the principal’s secretary would usher me into the office, seat me on a couch, and place a cup of coffee in front of me while I waited for the principal to be free.
Attempting to be polite, I would drink the coffee. But I can’t stand coffee, even to this day. It makes my stomach hurt. I would much rather have tea!
I’m glad the cups were rather small. So I forced myself. Still, just as soon as I had drunk half of the cup, they would bring me another cup! Sometimes the principal would take awhile. So I found myself choking down two or three cups of the nasty stuff!
This was their way of expressing respect and politeness to me, the gaijin teacher.
After suffering through this painful ordeal several times, I mentioned to a fellow Japanese juku teacher how much I disliked this part of my new job. She looked at me with shock and surprise and said, “Just don’t drink it!”
“But that would be impolite!” I responded.
“Oh no. Your hosts at the school are simply bringing you what they think you will like. Most Americans like coffee, so they bring you coffee. This is their way of expressing politeness to you.”
“But I’m not like most Americans. I like tea.”
“I will tell you what to do. Next time a principal’s office lady brings you coffee, pick up the cup and hold it for three seconds, then put down the cup without drinking. See what happens.”
Two days later, I went to a new middle school and found myself, once again, staring at the dreaded cup of coffee in a principal’s office. I picked it up. I counted to three. I put it down.
The principal’s secretary immediately picked it up, went out, and returned in a few moments with a cup of green tea. I love green tea!
What can we learn?
The moral of the story is that different cultures have different ways of being polite.
Japanese understand politeness to involve intuiting what your guest wants. It is considered impolite to ask your guests what they want, putting pressure on them to choose. Instead, you offer them something, then see how they react. When they seem to like something, you remember what they liked the next time they come to your home, and offer them that thing first.
In America, we think it is polite to ask people what they want. We also think it’s polite to tell people to “make yourself at home,” which often means having access to the refrigerator for overnight guests. Familiarity often is involved when expressing our standard of politeness.
For a Japanese arriving in America for the first time, it is appalling to be given the responsibility to choose things or the freedom to forage for oneself in another person’s fridge!
The polite host in Japan takes care of the needs of the guest and must anticipate likes and dislikes without asking. So, if you want to be culturally sensitive to a Japanese person, put something you think they will like in front of them.
Then watch their reaction. If they like it, remember that and give it to them again the next time!
Have you ever found yourself in a sticky cross-cultural situation like this? If so, tell us a little about it!
Photo credit: QuinntheIslander on Pixabay, Creative Commons