Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Pervasive Politeness

On my former blog, I once mentioned that service in Japan is often over-praised and over-rated. I still believe that is true as I've had my share of bad experiences. One of the most recent ones this past week was with Acer Japan who ripped us off and lied to us albeit they were relatively polite in the process. I guess getting screwed is supposed to be okay as long as, in doing so, one conforms to socially-condoned business forms. I can say that Acer has now joined Dell as another company we will never make a purchase from again and I would discourage anyone from buying computers from either of these companies because of their troublesome after-service. Though they are not perfect, Apple is looking better and better by comparison to the dismal PC service.

One thing that is generally true is that most service in Japan is offered according to set forms and rules. I'd say that 95% of the time, you're dealt with in a reasonable or positive manner. People greet you, thank you, and offer your goods in a ritualized way. Their eyes may be dead and their hearts not in it, but they say what should be said and do what is supposed to be done in order to conform to what constitutes a polite exchange with a customer.

I hadn't intended to revisit this topic, but reading about Emily's experience with service in England got me thinking about why service back home can be indifferent, surly, and flat-out rude at times. Such experiences are not unheard of in Japan (and are certainly not outside of my personal experience), but they are rare. If I had to estimate, I'd say 2% of my experiences here could fall within a range of "rude" or at least inappropriate in some fashion (e.g., being ignored by cashiers, surliness, refusal of service, sloppy work, no greeting or expressions of gratitude, etc.). If this is compared to what my husband experienced back home when he visited a little over a year ago (and Emily's experiences in her post), that's a very low rate.

Part of the reason for this, I'm sure, is that the ethic is different in Western countries. I'm not talking necessarily about the work ethic as I believe the work ethic in many countries is just as strong as that in Japan (sometimes stronger depending on the individual), but tends to manifest itself differently in the West than in Japan. Mainly, I'm talking about malleability and the role adherence to rules, guidelines and form plays in Japan relative to Western culture. The Japanese do not promote or permit autonomy on the job in many cases and tell you how to behave and you just do it. In the West, they may expect you to be polite to customers, but they expect you to know how to be polite and won't be instructing you on precisely how to carry out every little action to ensure that you are doing things properly. Employers generally leave how you choose to interact with customers up to you until you prove your judgment can't be trusted because of customer complaints. Even then, they aren't likely to train you explicitly and are likely to issue a general warning to shape up or they'll just fire you.

Another part is likely that cultures where individuality and equality are stressed do things differently than cultures where group interests, conformity, and status are a strong element. The customer is not "king" (at least not in most establishments) in Western countries because we don't like to view our status as being inferior to that of the customer. Being polite is seen as kowtowing to the customer or being obsequious. We don't want to elevate others above ourselves by treating their interests as superior to ours, even when they're paying for the privilege so this sometimes produces indifferent, sloppy, or overly casual interactions with those who are supposed to be providing service.

Finally, and I think this is by far the most important, in Japan the crappy low-paying service jobs like being a waitress, clerk in shop, etc. are very rarely seen as an inescapable option for survival. Most people in those jobs don't feel "trapped" in them, but rather see them as a temporary job, a means of making extra cash which they have the freedom to abandon at any time, or a retirement job that they do as much to occupy their days as for spare money. Japan has a (currently eroding) social situation where people for the most part can still count on moving on to bigger or better things with income stability. When you work an unfulfilling job where you have to pander to customers, it's a lot easier to do it with a good attitude if you're not looking at a future of nothing but the same because you're stuck. Many people back home know that the only escape from one low-paying, demoralizing job is to move to a similarly unpleasant circumstance.

I'm not trying to justify people who are rude to their customers or the people they are supposed to help, but rather trying to understand their motivation and mindset. One of the things I always value about life in Japan is how the difference allow you to reflect on your own culture and gain insight into what makes each particular culture work the way it does.


Helen said...

Generally in Japan I've had really good service. The exception for me was when I lived in Otaru, a northern city well known for its dislike of foreigners. At some stores I would go in and not even get the usual greeting of "Irashaimasshe". However, in the same city, I found places that when they got to know me were very friendly and I still miss a little.

What I miss about Canadian service is just the friendly chattiness. Granted, I may be missing that here because of the language barrier, but I don't think people in the taking money type of jobs here are that friendly. I rarely see people chatting with my husband for example.

Apparently now in my province it's extremely hard to get good workers for cashier type jobs, so the quality/politeness of the workers has really gone down. I'll probably talk about it when I come back in October.

Orchid64 said...

One thing is certain and that's one can't say the service here is "friendly". It's polite, but it's not friendly. I'd consider it was a language difference, but you don't see chatty exchanges between Japanese people either.

My husband also said that, after spending some time back home, he also missed the friendly exchange one might have with a clerk. I wonder if that's just a difference in how strangers are dealt with or a reflection of a barrier of formality between the customer and the person offering the service in recognition of a difference in status (albeit a very momentary one).

Many thanks for commenting. :-)

Dateline Osaka said...

I haven't had any store clerks treat me badly here yet, but I did overhear my husband have an interesting argument with Kuroneko once, with "desu,""masu" and a gentle tone of voice being the only thing stopping it from sounding like "Why, you lying SOB!"...One of the things I really love about the language - you can say something horribly insulting to someone, while still using a calm voice and polite grammar.

What happened was that once my stuff arrived from overseas, they had promised to take away the boxes, which I'm sure you may already know is pretty major, since it costs money otherwise to have boxes taken away (well...In Osaka city, at least. Unless you cut them into a million tiny pieces and take them out with the garbage in small increments over weeks ;) ). My husband, after having been given the runaround about it for a few days, finally managed to get them to admit they wouldn't do it, and his words were literally: "Uso dattan desu ne? Wakarimashita." *click* It was the most civilized tone of voice I've ever heard for fighting words (that weren't meant to sound deadpan for comedic effect, at least). :)

Emsk said...

I only met one rude person in Japan, and that was a guy on a till who started muttering - perhaps foul - things under his breath which he knew I couldn't understand. But there'll always be one.

Other than that service occasionally vered towards the too polite. I'm thinking of the time I walked through Isetan department store and every single person bowed as I walked past. As an ex-punk it's hard to handle that kind of subservience. Plus I'll never forget the cook at an Italian chain (can't remember the name) alsmost crumpling up with embarrassment because it was 11pm and she was tired and wanted to close.

As for chit-chats with staff, I did remarkably well for that. There were a couple of lovely Chinese ladies who used to always talk to me in the supermarket and I would have the same conversation with them night after night. I also made such good friends with the girls in the cafe I went to that they wrote me a card when I left.

I did notice rude behaviour from Japanese people, but it was a kind of hidden rudeness, such as the type you mentioned (not noticicing your presence).

1tess said...

I see the politeness issue from the other side—my job is in a non-profit retail operation, and I see some badly behaved customers. There are the ones who lie about the price of an item to a volunteer at the cash register. We are talking about very small amounts of money: 10¢ instead of 25¢, so what is the point of it? People drop things on the floor, sometime whole piles of stuff, and don't pick it up. Some regular customers try to bargain for cheaper prices, then I see them driving off in brand new BMWs. The parents who come in and assume staff will babysit their children while they shop can be a real nuisance and even a danger to their children. The parents who come in telling their children they can choose whatever they like and then say "No!" the whole time they are shopping—people fill a bag of whatever they want for one price—don't look to me like good parents. But the parents who threaten to put everything back if the kid doesn't "shut up", or those who threaten to leave the kids are even worse.

Then there was the "ick" factor of thoughtless behavior: a woman who wanted to pay with $5.00 in coins she fished out from under the filthy mats in her car!!! Talk about filthy money.