When politeness becomes annoyance

So there I am baking in my car in the intense July sun about to leave my parking space in the half-empty Aeon lot. However, I don’t do anything more than nudge the very tip of my nose out because someone is about to drive past me. They have the right of way – but then for no apparent reason, they slow down. I gesture to emphasize that I’m not about to advance, waiting expectantly for them get past so I can finally pull out myself.


But then they hesitate even more, now slowing to a crawl. At this point, they are almost directly in front of me — when they come to a complete stop. What follows is that awkward flurry of hand and head movements indicating, ‘You go’ ‘No, you go’ like the Chipmunks on the old Bugs Bunny cartoons (the over 50s will know what I mean). The entire escapade ends up meaning that neither of us move while we roast in the reflected sunlight and now a few other cars have started to back up behind Mr. Politeness.


‘No, you first!’ ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly!’


In Japan, politeness manifests itself as deference and hesitation. My own instincts run closer to the notion of politeness meaning that I get the hell out other people’s way as soon as I can. Politeness of the hesitation sort can be extremely annoying – although I’m sure that in turn my movements come across as very aggressive.


Like in the ordering line at Tully’s (or McD’s), where people hover 6 feet from the person in front and do their best to look like they aren’t really lining up to order their coffees because looking too eager to get ones order in would appear childishly impatient… and therefore impolite (yes, long before social distancing became a thing). They often look like they are waiting for their finished orders, perusing the overhead menu, or waiting for friends, so you get behind the last person who’s obviously in line, only to sniff the faint air of psychic ‘tut-tuts’ for (apparently) having butted in. 


Wednesday morning coffee crowd line up at Miyazaki Tully’s — or maybe not


Or like that guy in the right turn lane who stops 30 meters behind the car in front because getting too close to the other car’s butt end might be seen as pushy – but instead it means that the car behind him can’t fully enter the turn lane thus impeding all the traffic behind. Politeness leading to annoyance.


It happens in the classroom too.


Take my two-students-at-a-time role play test. The students are all waiting for their turns in the hall. I go out of the classroom and call the next two, Tanaka and Watanabe, in. I then go back to my table, preparing for Tanaka and Watanabe, noticing the door close behind me. The door has closed behind me because while Tanaka is ready to enter Watanabe is struggling to get her ‘Sha-pen’ from her pencil case. It would be impolite for Tanaka to stop the door — since it is part of the teacher’s classroom — from closing as would it be for him to enter first; Politeness requires that they enter together. So Tanaka allows gravity to take its course and lets the door close.


Soon come the inevitable knocks on the door, because, hey, it would be impolite for a student to open the door without my explicit permission. So I have to get up, go over, and open the door for them once again. I then say, ‘Ok, have a seat’ while I take mine and start jotting some notes. Now I see that they are hovering near their seats but are clearly avoiding sitting in them. After all, it would be impolite for them to do so, so they wait for me to explicitly say, ‘Sit down please’. Then I tell them to write their names at the top of the test form in Romaji. They hesitate by waiting for each other to start writing, in case they didn’t get my instruction correct. It would, of course, be impolite to ask me ‘Sorry, what?” with the possible implication that I was the problem, so instead they perform that bobble-head doll dance that uncertain people affect.


This is just… unsettling


In this test, these students are supposed to be role-playing doctors – or nurses. But most adopt that very submissive posture that you might affect if taking a job interview with the Imperial Household Agency. To come across as what I would consider to be professionally relaxed – or competent – would be… impolite.


First-world problems, I know, but so much politeness can actually be a hassle. It takes up everyone’s time. It forces me to intervene. To be overly explicit. It creates tension where none is necessary.


There are numerous ways in which annoying student politeness can rear its head in the Japanese English classroom:


  1. Not wanting to look too good at English and thus show up others.
  2. Believing that a full sentence response to a question (‘What’s the patient’s temperature?’ ‘The patient’s temperature is 37.8 degrees’) is somehow more ‘polite’ than quickly providing the requested data.
  3. Not wanting to admit that they do not know an answer and instead turn to a classmate and have a private discussion while we all wait because getting an answer wrong is… impolite.
  4. Not letting sensei know that he/she has skipped an item in ‘the list’, or has committed some similar faux pas, even though its omission screws up the activity (an awkward silence usually envelops the room at this point).
  5. A lot of preliminary shifting, paper rustling, and nodding before starting a communication activity because it would be the height of impropriety to ‘just get into it.’
  6. Not venturing an expansive response in a classroom conversation because that would come across as self-indulgent, or perhaps render the classroom too informal/casual.
  7. A willingness to seek a bland security over passion or stimulation in their English production.
  8. Students often not giving any physical or verbal feedback to a teacher (or any ‘authority’) because it would be seen as a type of interruption – and thus impolite. This means that many teachers will ramble on incessantly, unsure if what they’ve said has been comprehended.
  9. The prevailing belief that ‘foreigners’ are always straight, direct, and to-the-point (i.e., brusque, unsubtle, lacking in the social graces).


Of course this is a double-edged sword. One of the great jots of living in Japan is that people here don’t pick fights or get in your face, are not contentious and/or abrasive, display patience, foster humility, value orderliness, aim to fulfill what they think you want of them, do a thorough job, and manifest a high degree of social trust. I find the notion of using indirectness in order to save the face of others to be highly civilized and tasteful. I am very comfortable with the social distinction between expressing surface and inner thoughts (‘honne’ and ‘tatemae’). And, if you have any social sensitivity you start to mirror most of these things after a few years yourself. But it doesn’t always bode well in the English language classroom.


Can you spot the subtle signal of refusal?


So, here are some of the classroom behaviours I have come to carry out to work around politeness:


  1. If there is one thing I can say about ‘Japanese society’ as a whole, it’s that it is very procedural. Ergo, if the teacher lays out the procedures, protocols, and expectations clearly in advance, students will follow.
  2. Any time there’s an awkward classroom silence I assume that I have said or done something wrong.
  3. I explicitly state that interesting and stimulating (or original) content will be more highly evaluated in tasks and projects, even if the grammar and vocabulary are not quite up to snuff.
  4. After giving instructions and making groups I give a very clear ‘5,4,3,2,1, go!’ and a clap to signal the start of the activity.
  5. I explicitly teach that I do not want full sentence responses to data-oriented questions.
  6. I tell certain students in advance that I will be asking them to answer or respond to a certain item so that they can prepare. Putting people on the spot in Japan is… impolite.
  7.  I regularly remind the more proficient students that their classmates learn not only from the teacher but also from them, as proficient models. In other words, that it is actually more polite to speak competently to their classmates than to dumb it down.


Japanese politeness is probably the one thing that can most easily throw a new foreign teacher for a loop and actually result in a negative classroom impact (except for children’s classes, as kids are often refreshingly oblivious to the nuances). Knowing how the system works, and then, how to ‘work’ the system makes for better outcomes. And, ultimately, that might be the politest move of all.




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