Posts Tagged ‘japanese society’

The Pain of Buying

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Living in a country where the people don’t speak your language is a very isolating experience. Suddenly simple everyday tasks such as ordering food at a counter become nerve wracking ordeals fraught with social peril. This is especially the case in a country such as Japan, where social customs are so important. There are patterns of behavior which are expected in so many situations, and deviating from these paths caused lots of trouble for the many flustered, inflexible Japanese people we met working in shops, restaurants, banks and post offices. Did you know that the Japanese language has an entirely different vocabulary in situations such as dealing with a fast-food register operator, because of the social hierarchy of the customer being “above” the employee? This is called “keigo”. The Japanese language has many honorifics, parts of speech which show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations. So not only is it difficult for foreigners such as myself to navigate their way through this seemingly endless minefield of faux pas due to their ignorance of the expected modes of behavior in a situation, even for those visitors who speak some Japanese they can still be screwed because customer service employees often seem to be speaking another language. They worked so hard to efface themselves in my presence and what they actually ended up doing was making it much harder for me not to cause them embarrassment when it was obvious I had no idea what they just said.

Ok, so this is a problem. But it isn’t an insurmountable one. Just pick up the vocab they are using, go away and study it, right? Then find out what the correct response is. Well…

Knowing the correct response doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, and in fact can fool the clerk into thinking that you can actually speak Japanese, eliciting another language puzzle. It’s like an onion: there are layers, and peeling each one back makes you cry.