JinK: Bishop-san, the other day a stranger started talking to me on the train.
Bishop: What did he say to you?
JinK: Well, he was a large, well-dressed guy in his early-thirties.
He said, “Those glasses are cool. Where did you get them?”
Bishop: Oh, nice!
JinK: Yeah, it is nice to get a compliment.
But it was a bit alarming to have a stranger just start talking to me out of the blue like that.
In Japan, it’s quite rare for people you don’t know to start conversations like that, and
when it does happen they are usually trying to sell you something or get you to join some strange group.
Bishop: I think in this case he wasn’t trying to get you to do anything, he was just saying what he thought.
JinK: You’re probably right. This wasn’t the first time this happened to me in America.
Another time, someone I didn’t know said “The color of your jacket is nice. I love it!”
In Japan, there’s no way you’d hear something like that from someone you didn’t know.
Not that I’d mind if someone did…
For Japanese people who aren’t used to this kind of conversation, it can make us nervous.
Bishop: It’s not like they’re saying something bad, so isn’t it a good thing?
These little interactions can lead to some interesting conversations.
I find small talk with various types of people to be quite enjoyable.
JinK: There’s definitely a stronger tendency for Americans to say whatever comes to mind.
In Japan, people change what they say and how they say it depending on who they are talking to.
When someone you don’t know starts talking to you in Japan, the first reaction is to become suspicious
and wonder what their ulterior motive is.
Also, it’s considered rude to speak with someone you don’t know in an overly-familiar way.
That’s something which is very different in the U.S. and Japan.
Bishop: I think you’re right. How you interact with strangers is very different in Japan than in the U.S.
Sometimes it can feel lonely in Japan, without that easygoing atmosphere which we have in the U.S.
Why is it so difficult to speak with strangers in Japan? Or to put it another way,
why is there such a sense of distance between people?
JinK: Basically, there are a lot of shy people in Japan; people tend to be more wary of strangers.
Also, Japan used to have a class system in which people were divided into
warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants.
Within the warrior class, there were several ranks. So people always had to be conscious of
the social status of who they were talking to.
Also, in the village community structure, it was very important which group you belonged to.
Once you’re inside a group, people talk freely with each other, but there was a tendency to push out those
who didn’t belong in the group.
One example of this is the concept of “Mura Hachi-bu.”
Bishop: Mura Hachi-bu? What’s that?
JinK: Mura refers to village, the unit which made up communities in rural Japan.
You can think of a Mura as a group.
So Mura Hachi-bu refers to the practice of cutting off all ties with anyone who broke the rules or order of the group.
The “hachi-bu” (= eight) part comes from the fact that out of the 10 communal activities in rural life,
they would exclude these people from all except two of them: funerals and firefighting.
They make these exceptions because not doing a funeral would lead to the spread of communicable diseases,
and not helping to put out a fire could lead to that fire spreading to the rest of the community.
That is the extent of how much people were conscious of whether someone was “in” or “out” of the group.
JinK: Japan has historically been a rice farming society, in which people grouped together
in units called villages (Mura) to grow rice together.
I think the practice of viewing outsiders with suspicion is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and
part of that remains to this day. On the other hand, the U.S. was driven by the frontier spirit,
in which it was important to be constantly exchanging information and searching out new opportunities.
Bishop: I think that makes a lot of sense. Americans like to exchange information with each other in a casual manner.
There are a lot of times in Japan I wish I could speak more freely with all sorts of people.
JinK: I know what you mean. I have finally gotten used to this aspect of the U.S. Now I enjoy the small talk
that comes up with the person at the cash register.
The other day the store clerk said to me, “That bacon is good isn’t it. That brand is my favorite.”
I replied,“This is the kind that my wife likes best.”
And the clerk smiled and said, “She has good taste.” It’s a small thing, but it made my wife happy.
These kind of conversations are fun; they are one of the things I like about the U.S.
Bishop: That’s great. You should try out small talk with all sorts of different people.
JinK: Yeah, I think I will. On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend doing this in Japan.
If you come up and say “Hey, how’s it hanging?” to the person at the cash register,
they’ll think “Huh? What a strange guy.”
The person at the register won’t give personal opinions like “Your wife has good taste in bacon.”
Actually, since speed of checkout is so important in Japan, they probably won’t say anything at all.
It’s not that Japanese people are unfriendly, it’s just a cultural difference. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Since I’m in the U.S., I will try to learn how to do small talk in as many situations as possible.
Fact #7 Americans are good at doing small talk even with strangers
by Bishop & JinK.