Foreign Languages

May 16, 2010

On fake Asian politeness

Aung Si writes: “...The people were very polite to me, but you could always tell what they were really thinking...”. I realised he was actually talking about the dreaded “fake Asian politeness”.

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.

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2 thoughts on “On fake Asian politeness

  1. Aidan Wilson

    A while ago I blogged about Japanese honorifics, and an example of extreme politeness that we received in the linguistics department in the form of a letter. It was addressed to “The Honorable Responsible Person”. This sort of thing isn’t restricted to Japanese or indeed any east-Asian language; here’s how people were instructed to sign off a letter to the Pope in French as recently as 1955:

    Prosterné aux pieds de votre Sainteté
    et implorant la faveur
    de Sa bénédiction apostolique,
    J’ai l’honneur d’être,
    Très Saint Père,
    Avec la plus profonde vénération,
    De Votre Sainteté,
    Le très humble et très obéissant serviteur et fils

    Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness
    and begging the favor
    of His apostolic blessing,
    I have the honor to be,
    Very Holy Father,
    With the most profound veneration,
    The very humble and very obedient servant and son
    Of Your Holiness.

  2. Mr Bascombe

    It’s somewhat similar in China and Korea. Although I think the Chinese simplified their honorifics during the cultural revolution (you know, when ‘everyone was equal’). They bow in Korea too, but it’s not as pronounced as in Japan, and they have a multi-layered honorific-based language too. Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting chapter on honorifics in Korean culture in his recent book ‘Outliers’.

    In the 80’s there were quite a few airline crashes with Korean airlines because the pilots were too polite to each other (when speaking in Korean)! Cockpit conversation (well, orders really) were never ‘to the point’ and assertive but beat around the bush in order to show respect for one another, especially one’s superior. So instead of saying “large storm ahead, let’s change course” a polite conversation ensued about the greyness/blackness of storm clouds and what perhaps would happen to the captain’s flower beds if a storm of such and such magnitude were to possibly hit his home and how such a storm could affect his ability to fly the plane, even though he is vastly experienced, knowledgeable and an expert pilot far, far more worthy of making navigational decisions than his humble, lowly co-pilot.

    Result: long, polite cockpit conversation in Korean in the face of danger = crash (sometimes).

    Korean airlines change their operational language to English (which can be blunter and more to the point amongst other things) = no Korean airline crashes.

    So it doesn’t always pay to be polite on board a plane. Especially if you’re flying it.

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