American Friendliness Versus Japanese Politeness
When studying abroad, cultural differences are something that should not be ignored. It is a strong factor in deciding what one may or may not be comfortable with experiencing long term. Considering cultural differences, it is valuable for you as a student to do research to fully learn how to adapt to the new society which you will be engulfed in. Without proper understanding, a long-term foreign resident such as yourself may be more susceptible to “culture shock.” While experiencing culture shock is not uncommon for study abroad students, severe cases can have a negative effect on your psyche. Perhaps two of the most opposing cultures are America and Japan. This is particularly true with regards to how they respond and act in everyday situations.
One aspect of American culture that remains valid for much of the population, even within today’s society, is the general friendliness that many American people possess. For example, when walking down the street, strangers will often greet one another with ease. While it does differ depending on the region, with people from certain areas being well-known for being more “cold” or more “welcoming”, sociable conversations between strangers are not uncommon and not necessarily unwelcome.
Of course, for some, it may be strange how willing and eager Americans can be when conversing with others. Perhaps Americans are too friendly or even superficial. For many, when they realize that when an American asks, “How are you?” generally the person only means to say, “Hi.” Often, this can be perceived as a lack of genuineness as foreign students might think the asker may not actually care how one is.
However, being friendly means investing in other people’s daily lives and engaging in small talk to make the other feel valued. Questions and small talk take place to allow strangers to feel connected without becoming too involved. Being pleasant and showing interest in one another does not require any prior knowledge for Americans. Similarly, it does not require any further contact. Being friendly is something that occurs at that moment and does not necessarily need to be expanded on.
Perhaps the culture that differs most from America in terms of interaction between strangers is Japan. Often Japan is considered as having one the of most polite cultures in the world. Nevertheless, it is common for citizens of Japan can come off as cold and indifferent towards strangers and, maybe, even more so towards foreigners. However, what may be considered apathetic in one culture can be polite and noninvasive in another. For Japanese people, there is a generally accepted premise that people should not burden others with their true feelings or troubles. Therefore, within Japan, by not being traditionally “friendly” and by leaving emotional space between one another, people are being considerate of other’s feelings.
Politeness in Japan is closely related to respect and patience. Japanese people are more willing to listen and are less likely to complain. They will dress in a way to make other people more comfortable. The key premises of Japanese interactions is being harmonious. They believe that the way forward is through the cooperation of
everyone. As such, hospitality and politeness are key to creating a preferable atmosphere. Japanese attitude is focused towards respecting others and their space in any situation.
Comparing the Two: Peaches and Coconuts
After being raised in the American environment, where people’s actions are meant to feel personable, it can be difficult to become accustomed to anything different. After visiting Japan, the differences between friendliness and politeness becomes more evident.
There is an analogy comparing the culture of relationships by using peaches and coconuts. In peach cultures, such as America, there is a soft exterior that is easy to penetrate but the inside contains a hard pit. People smile at one another, make small talk, and are more willing to share and ask personal questions. However, after awhile, one reaches the “pit” where people are more guarded with their true feelings and relationships are halted. For a coconut culture, like Japan, at the start, people are more guarded in the beginning. However, once one enters the “shell,” an arguably closer bond is formed and the relationship is more likely to flourish.
Learning from Different Cultures
When a foreigner becomes immersed into an unfamiliar culture, perhaps it is easy to pick out aspects that can make them uncomfortable. Nevertheless, trying to understand how cultures treat certain daily situations differently can aid in immersing oneself into society. Of course, there is nothing wrong with realizing that perhaps what one culture values do not match up with yours. However, that does not make it any less significant or mean it is worth less.
Sure, it can be jarring for an American, a peach, to come into contact with those who do not appreciate their friendliness and react with civility. Of course, on the other hand, it can make Japanese, or coconuts, feel suspicious of a hidden agenda when being accosted with seemingly personal questions. And of course all individuals are different and you should not make sweeping generalizations of an entire society. Yet, different cultural norms exist for a reason. Becoming more socially aware of them can allow for greater global understanding and communication.