Thursday, 17 September 2009

I`m sorry but ... the British are rude

I`m back in Japan again after the summer vacation. I had planned to blog while in the UK but the reverse culture shock proved too great. I just couldn`t write at all. I hadn`t been back for a year and the place had changed in ways I had not expected. At the time I couldn`t figure it out – perhaps I was the one who had changed – but now that I am back in Japan the cultural differences are leaping out at me. The first is manners or as the Japanese call it, “Etiketto” (etiquette). “Teach us English etiquette”, I am often asked by students and Japanese housewives. And at the start of my Introduction to British Culture and Society course when I ask students what Britain means to them, several will reply, “English gentlemen”. For example? “Ladies first” (It`s actually a gairaigo, an adopted foreign word here, pronounced “Reidees faasto”).
Unfortunately during my UK stay I saw very little gentlemanly or polite behaviour. I did however see and experience a great deal of defensiveness. For example, I was returning a white blouse to Marks and Spencer (because when I put it on the fabric was so thin it was almost transparent, and I teach teenage boys) when a conversation developed between the M & S store clerk and a customer. The customer was told that she couldn`t have her money back but would have to take a credit voucher at which point she said very loudly, “THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS. I PAID WITH CASH, I WANT MY MONEY BACK AND I AM NOT LEAVING HERE UNTIL I GET IT.”

So far, so rude. But what shocked me was that the store clerk then replied just as loudly and aggressively, “LOOK, SWEETHEART, I KNOW MY JOB.” And proceeded to tell the customer that she was going to have to take what was offered. To which the customer replied, “THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE DISGRACE. I AM NEVER SHOPPING HERE AGAIN”.

What struck me about his conversation was that both women had been so defensive. If either one had started her converstion with the Japanese classic, “I`m sorry but ....” and just smiled and spoken more softly the tense situation could have been diffused in a second and the both sides may have made efforts to accommodate the other. Defensiveness is a product of fear. What are British people so afraid of?
More on manners later. Above is the latest in the manners poster series on the Tokyo subway. The bottom tagline reads, "Please be considerate of those around you on the train".

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