JinK: Bishop-san, I’ve been doing interviews recently.
Bishop: In English?
JinK: Yes of course in English. I’ve done probably more than 30
since I came to the U.S.
Bishop: Wow, that’s a lot. Isn’t it hard to do interviews in English?
JinK: Well, the questions and evaluation points are fairly standard,
so I’ve gotten used to it. There’s just one thing I can’t get used to…
Bishop: What’s that?
JinK: As the interviewer, I ask the interviewee questions, right?
Then, usually they will reply with something like,
“That’s a good question,” or “That’s a good point.”
Bishop: That’s a standard response. Saying that buys the person time
to think about their answer; it’s a pretty convenient expression.
JinK: It just rubs me the wrong way.
Bishop: Hmm? Is there something wrong with it?
JinK: If you say “That’s a good question” or something like that to a Japanese interviewer,
they’d probably fail you on the spot. The interviewer would feel,
“Who does this guy think he is?”
Bishop: Really? All they are saying is that it’s a good question;
they don’t mean anything bad by that…
JinK: By saying it’s a good question, the candidate is evaluating
the interviewer’s question. This makes the interviewer, who should be the one evaluating,
feel like they are being evaluated. In other words, their positions feel reversed,
which offends the interviewer.
Bishop: But, they don’t mean anything bad by it at all. Actually, people say “It’s a good question”
to make a good impression on the interviewer and help move the conversation along.
JinK: I understand the sentiment. I think Japanese people are just more sensitive to
their position, whether they are evaluating or being evaluated.
Even if you say something good, if the statement is made too casually
without first earning trust, or when it’s not appropriate, people tend to
think “What’s this patronizing attitude?” Evaluating those older than you are
in a patronizing manner is considered especially rude.
Bishop: I see. That makes things difficult. Even if you’re speaking with the best intentions,
it may come off as rude to the other person.
JinK: Exactly. But I know people don’t mean anything bad by it, so I’m careful not
to take it personally. Some cultural differences I just can’t get used to though.
To give another example, it felt strange to have a junior employee in their 20’s say,
“Hey, JinK,” though I’ve gotten used to it.
In Japan, if someone one year above you in school, or joined the company one year
ahead of you, they become your sempai (senior), and you have to use keigo
(polite speech) when talking to them. I care less than most Japanese people
about that kind of thing, but I still don’t like hearing “Hey.”
Age is one reason, but also it feels out of place at the workplace.
Bishop: That’s what’s difficult about Japanese.
In the U.S., even new employees address the CEO by their first name,
and you can freely speak your mind. We say “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
It’s important to speak one’s own opinions clearly, and people who do so
get promoted more quickly.
JinK: In Japan it’s the opposite. We say “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
Those who speak their mind too strongly, and disrupt the existing order of things
tend to end up on people’s bad sides.
So, if someone who just joined the company, who still doesn’t understand
how to do their job, tells the CEO or other executive their opinion,
it would be considered imprudent and thoughtless.
To put it another way, Japanese tend to strongly dislike anything that disrupts
the order or the atmosphere. We even have the expression KY.
Bishop: KY? What does that mean?
JinK: It’s short for “Kuki Yomenai,” or literally “Can’t read the atmosphere.”
It’s an expression used to describe someone whose actions or expressions
are inappropriate for the atmosphere or situation they are in.
When someone says something inappropriate for that situation,
doesn’t it sometimes feel as though the air freezes over a bit?
Bishop: Yes, I have experienced that in the past. But reading the atmosphere of
each situation sounds pretty difficult. For example, in an interview situation,
what should you say when you want some time to think?
JinK: Well, for example you could use an expression asking for permission
such as “Could I have some time to think about that?”
Bishop: Certainly, that does respect the position of the interviewer,
but it feels so stiff and formal.
JinK: I agree. I actually don’t mind the casual and friendly atmosphere in the U.S.
But in an interview, you’re meeting the person for the first time, and
in Japan manners are more important than friendliness.
We have the expression, “Courtesy should be exercised even among close friends.”
By the way, do you have an expression like that in English?
Bishop: That’s a good question!
JinK: Is it really?
Bishop: Oops, excuse me. JinK-san, could I have some time to think about that?”
JinK: Bishop-san, no need to tense up so much like a shachihoko.
In conversations among friends, you can say “That’s a good question.”
Bishop: I see… well there is an expression “A hedge between keeps friendship green,”
but if you act too formally it feels too impersonal and distant.
By the way, what is a that expression about tensing up like a shachihoko?
JinK: Do you know what a shachihoko is?
The ones that you often see on the roofs of Japanese castles?
Bishop: I have seen shachihoko. Those stern-looking things with the body of a fish
and the head of a tiger? I don’t really see the resemblance… do I look like a shachihoko?
JinK: That’s a good question! Hmm, now that I think about it, I guess a little bit?
Bishop: JinK-san, that’s terrible!
JinK: Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.
We say “tense up like a shachihoko” because they look tense and curled up.
It’s not a word that’s used so often. These types of archaic expressions are more interesting,
and they put emphasis on what you’re trying to say. I say “don’t tense up like a shachihoko”
because we’re friends and we don’t have to worry so much about being polite to each other.
Bishop: It’s hard to know which type of Japanese to use in which situation.
I think I still have a lot to learn.
JinK: Well, you could say that’s true, but you could also say it’s not really true.
In the U.S., you have to avoid using politically incorrect language, and everyone is really
sensitive about discrimination and prejudice. If you just think of Japan in the same way,
but with different criteria, it might be easier for you to understand.
One way would be to learn which type of Japanese to learn for every conceivable situation,
but you’ll actually be OK if you stick to Japanese’s fundamental rule of stepping into
the shoes of the listener, and thinking about how your words will make them feel.
Fact #14: In Japan, it’s inappropriate to say “That’s a good question” to an interviewer
by Bishop & JinK.