Aung Si writes:

A friend of mine returned to Australia after a week-long holiday in Tokyo, and had the following to report: “It was awesome! The food was great, and the country’s amazing! The people were very polite to me, but you could always tell what they were really thinking…”

That came as quite a surprise, given that this friend speaks no Japanese. He’d never been to Japan before, and as far as I could tell, didn’t have any Japanese friends either. I realised he was actually talking about the dreaded “fake Asian politeness”.

Faking it by degrees

If this friend had taken the trouble to learn some Japanese, he might have had access to a lot more ammunition with which to back up his claim. The Japanese language abounds with grammatical and lexical strategies to give speakers the ability to sound moderately, very or extremely polite, depending on the social situation. You must convert everyday words like ‘give’, ‘eat’, ‘family’, ‘lunch box’ or ‘name’ to their ‘honorific’ forms when speaking to someone of higher status, and requests and refusals frequently take the form of vague and often impenetrable (to an English speaker, at least) half-sentences like “I’d like to go to the bus stop, but…” (i.e. How do I get there?) and, “The weekend’s a bit…” (i.e. I’m busy this weekend). Some politeness formulae are translated in textbooks into clunky, almost nauseating English: “Please look favourably upon my humble request” is my personal favourite.

There’s no denying it – Japanese has a lot of obligatory politeness built into it. But there’s nothing ‘fake’ about these expressions. They’re simply things you say, automatically and routinely, that mark you as a competent, functioning member of Japanese society. English has its own quirks too: wishing people a “good morning” is quite alien to many cultures, and lots of languages make do with a simple, “Give me some salt”, instead of the more familiar, but convoluted, “Would you mind passing me the salt?” A Japanese linguist studying everyday Australian English might feel compelled to note the following puzzling exchanges in his/her field notebook:

16/07/09, Location: Office, beside vending machine, Situation: Afternoon tea
Person A: Could I borrow 20 cents for the Coke machine?
Person B: There you go.
Person A: Thanks mate, you’re a champion!
(note to self: check possibility that ‘champion’ means ‘doer of very small favour’)

06/04/10, Location: Supermarket checkout, Situation: Paying for groceries
Supermarket employee: Hey, how’s it going?
Customer: Yeah, not too bad. Yourself?
Supermarket employee: Ah, you know, keeping busy. Did you have a good long weekend?
Customer: Yes, I had a lovely time at the coast.
Supermarket employee: Oh, that’s good to hear. That’ll be $5.20, thanks!
(note to self: near-identical conversations recorded on all previous visits to supermarkets. evidence of extreme empathy for complete strangers? extreme inquisitiveness?)

25/12/08, Location: Living room of house, Situation: Gift opening ceremony during annual Christmas festival
Person A: Oh my God! Thank you SO much! It’s what I’ve always wanted! How did you know??!!
Person B: You’re very welcome. I’m SO glad you like it.
(note to self: how DID person B know? investigate more subjects for presence of telepathic ability)

‘Politeness’ and ‘manners’ are just sets of rules that everyone needs to learn in order to behave appropriately in society. Unfortunately, each society has a different set of rules, and that’s what leads to a whole bunch of misunderstandings, embarrassments, moments of hilarity and faux pas when people engage in cross-cultural communication. The solution? Please read my humble blog post sympathetically, honoured internet-surfer, and bestow your esteemed favour upon my people.