Thursday, September 25, 2008

Light bulb

I think I understood something today about Japan.

In their effort to become the most modern, most civilized nation in the world, the Japanese have turned into robots in their day to day professional lives (I:m not talking about their personal stuff at home). Let me explain.

I was in Osaka yesterday and it was a big city. It felt like NYC, just without the tall buildings. When I get to Tokyo my head will probably spin.

Their effort to achieve perfection is what causes them to talk to me in Japanese even after I:ve told them I speak English. They:re taught to do things in the best way possible, and they do it that way, no matter what, everytime. It:s their method of quality control. If they:ve been taught to say it, then they will say it, even if I don:t understand it.

For example, when I purchase a food item at a convenience store, they say something at all of these points of transition:
1. when I enter the store
2. when I bring food up to the counter
3. when they scan the item
4. when they ask me if I want a bag
5. when they tell me how much it is
6. when they receive my money
7. when they calculate change
8. when they give me money
9. when they say thank you
10. when they say bye as I leave

When I walk into Family Mart or a 7 Eleven or a medium level restaurant, I always get this kind of experience. Usually right before step 4 I tell them I can only speak English. I can tell they heard what I said (they:re not deaf), but after that they just continue right on with Japanese until the end of the transaction. This is what makes them so polite, they are always polite right down to the 10 step process.

The only problem with this, and I think I now understand why it bothers me, is that the entire process seems so impersonal. I feel like I:m talking to a human vending machine most of the time. There are exceptions of course, such as the nice young man who helped me find directions to my hotel 4 days ago in Fukuoka. He pulled out map after map trying to figure out where my hotel was and then afterwards he gave me directions in his best English on where to turn and how many signal lights to walk in a given direction. Other times I:ll say "No Japanese" to the girls behind the counter and they:ll smile and giggle because they thought I was Japanese until I told them. Then they tell me their sorry that they got confused and I tell them it:s no big deal because everyone else assumes the same. I notice these moments because the display of personality is obvious.

If you compare with Korea, just because it:s so easy to compare similar cultures, I wouldn:t say that the people who work in similar professions are friendlier at all, but they are general more personal, possibly because they aren:t as far along on the "civilized" scale.


Blogger vovo said...

it sounds like it has nothing to do with being a more "civilized" country (& could you define that?). perhaps it has to do with the language barrier. or, a difference in culture. or, maybe it's you.

from what you wrote, it just sounds like good customer service -i mean, maybe them yakking on in japanese is awkward for you, but i'm sure it's better than them not trying to communicate with you at all. there have been many instances in my experience with customer service in which you continue to talk to someone despite the fact neither one understands each other, but you make the effort & do it with a smile. & it's the civilized thing to do.

even so, what if they are just going through the motions? people in the US (our civilized, albeit not always sophisticated country)do it all the time..most don't even make the effort.

September 26, 2008 at 4:43 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

it:s definitely good customer service, but it could be improved if they took it up even another level, to where they customize the experience perfectly for each customer.

I don:t expect better. I just thought that since they were so good, that they would have thought the customized experience is better, but either they:re not there yet or they disagree and believe that a customized experience is not better.

September 27, 2008 at 1:16 AM  
Blogger Morgan said...

i think there are plenty of circumstances where you get customized experiences with japanese customer service, which i believe is some of the best in the world, but could seem more robotic because its not your language or culture and they aren't trained to deal with foreigners. this kind of highly trained customer service, where they have set phrases they say in a set tone with set gestures, is just one part of how they show you respect, deference, and distance and this is a cultural thing. you are the customer, they are the service, and the language they use and social distance is one way to show that respect.
one thing i know from living in japan is that if you make an effort to speak the language when needed people will go out of their way for you and be much more friendly. even the 'robots' in the convenience stores. although i have to say, i don't know what kind of conversation you expect from a cashier. i know when i was there and the cashier thinks i am a foreigner, and they are confident in their english enough, they will tell me my change in english. but i think that is hard to expect when you are in a japanese speaking country.
so when they are ringing you up for your food, and you say 'sorry i don't speak japanese' what are they supposed to do? start talking in a language they don't know or don't have the confidence to communicate in? i think it sounds a little obnoxious to expect this from them...

September 27, 2008 at 1:59 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

I think what I would expect is what I got from people in Thailand.

They notice that I can:t speak their language, so they just try to read the number of the price to me, if it seems like I can:t understand that, they point to the number on the cash register and smile, saying that:s how much is due.

Then when I pay they take my money with a smile and give me change with a smile and then just bow or something or just say thank you in thai because most foreigners know what thank you means just from being in the country for a little while.

I don:t expect them to shine my shoes or something like that. I just expect them to act like humans who notice that I can:t understand what they:re saying.

Once again, I never meant that they were bad people or bad at customer service, but your statement of "they weren:t trained for foreigners" is part of my point of this post. The fact that they have to be trained for foreigners just to act a little more human and less robotic just seems kind of a weird concept for me. I would think that being human would come natural to somebody.

September 27, 2008 at 6:41 PM  
Blogger Morgan said...

i don't think it's as bad as you make it out to be... maybe they really think you are japanese??

September 27, 2008 at 8:20 PM  

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