Thursday, April 07, 2005

When is polite impolite?

Reading from the Japundit archives tonight, I came across an interesting commentary on a Japan Times article. Ampontan makes some good points about recognizing and reacting appropriately to Japanese conversational conventions, and John Thacker writes a comment comparing these Japanese customs to those in North Carolina.
As a Southerner, I’ve never though it weird to talk about the weather. Nor to refuse all initial offers, to insist upon an offer even if you don’t really mean it, to offer compliments to be polite, and to turn them aside in order to be polite. I also understand perfectly well getting upset if someone doesn’t apologize for having you doing something that you wanted to do anyway, or offer to pay for something that you want to pay for. All favors should be initially refused (and possibly refused a second time). If the person really wants to do it, they’ll insist. Just basic politness I learned growing up in North Carolina; thankfully it applies for the most part in Japan. (Now in New York…) ... In fact, it’s downright frustrating for me to be in New York because people have such an impatience for small talk. Makes them seem rude.
I very nearly replied to this comment on the blog's page, but decided it was off-topic enough that it should be done on my own blog. So here we go.

I can't speak for other New Yorkers, but there must be a non-trivial number of them who feel the same way that I do about what kind of behavior is considered polite.

Regarding compliments, well, it depends on the compliment. If I believe the compliment was made in good faith, i.e. the person complimenting me really meant it, I say either, "Thank you," or more humbly, "I'm glad you think so." To deny this kind of compliment would be, in my mind, to call the compliment-giver a liar. If I say to someone, "You're really good at dancing," then I have watched them dance, thought they were good, and decided to comment on it. Of course, other compliments are just meant to be polite ("Nihongo wa jouzo desu ne," when my Nihongo couldn't get me past the Level 4 JLPT) or to flatter me ("You have the most beautiful voice in the world!"). In New York, I roll my eyes and say, "That's not true." In Japan, I omit the rolled eyes.
So where compliments are used as ice-breakers, I don't see a problem with denying their verity. But in other circumstances sometimes the most appropriate action is to accept the compliment gracefully.

Refusing a favor when you would really mean to accept it is a behavior that, in my view, borders on the obnoxious. If I've offered to do you a favor, I meant it when I first offered it. If you refuse to accept it, I assume you really don't want to accept. In my mind, if I refuse someone's offer only to expect them to make that offer a second (or third) time, I am expecting them to do more work to accomodate me than if I'd accepted in the first place. It also puts the one offering the favor in the awkward position of trying to know when to stop offering. Maybe people from North Carolina and Japan intuitively understand when enough is enough, but how many refusals must I hear, or how adamantly must one refuse, before I know the person really means it? All this "asking more than once" business leaves room for people to offer favors without really meaning it. Offering a favor becomes just a polite gesture, rather than a true offer of assistance. And what if I'm on the receiving end of a "polite favor"? How do I know if they really are interested in helping me?

And we all know how gracefully I deal with small talk.

Ach, maybe all this just comes naturally to people who have grown up with these social norms, but they're confusing and wholly unnecessary to me.

I'm mildly sleep-deprived, so forgive me if this post seems a bit ramblesome.

And I probably won't get to blogging about the World Expo this weekend, but I'll get to it. In short, mostly good with small patches of lame. High temperature 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

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