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CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / If you ask me — different approaches to tackling problems

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsIn this world, there are often various courses of action and ways of considering issues, which leads people to wonder how another person might view a particular matter. Advice columns date back centuries, at least as far as the British periodical The Athenian Mercury, which in the 1690s invited readers to send in their questions, with advice to be provided by a group of experts.

However, as Atlantic magazine journalist Adrienne LaFrance has described in her article “The Questions People Asked Advice Columnists in the 1690s,” much of the “advice” the readers sought was far different from what we might typically expect to read about in today’s media. For example, “What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come and whither do they go?” or “Why does leaning on the elbow and compressing the external corner of the right eye cause objects to appear duplicated?”

Although the nature of the advice required has changed, such columns remain popular, perhaps because we are curious about the kinds of worries others are facing or maybe because we hope to see our own long-hidden concern responded to. When the advice column is in a newspaper or magazine from a different country, it can additionally be of interest to see what kind of cultural take the advice-giver has on everyday, universal topics inspiring frustration, embarrassment, disappointment and so on.

Such is the case with the “Troubleshooter” column in this newspaper. After reading various complaints, either nodding sympathetically at the situation portrayed or frowning bemusedly at what seems to be a problem of its own making, I usually have at least a half-formed notion of what I would say to the writer were I the one consulted. It’s almost always poles apart from the counsel bestowed.

Recently, one man wrote about how his wife always plays the role of a back-seat driver when he cooks, rewashing vegetables he’s already washed, changing the temperature on the range and checking that meat is properly cooked through. He ended by writing plaintively: “At this point, after having endured a steady stream of comments from her, I’m finally starting to lose my confidence and motivation to cook. Is there anything wrong on my part?”

I could understand well his frustration. I began trying to imagine how he could gently change his wife’s behavior by helping her understand the detrimental impact of her actions on him. Perhaps some compromise on his part might also be necessary, but surely his wife ought to realize his good intentions and consider her own kitchen comportment. Or he might simply stop cooking for the ungracious.

When I read the first paragraph of the advice, I at first thought the writer was expressing himself satirically. He wrote: “A wife is an invaluable person, because she can complain about what you’re doing without holding back. Everything she says and does is reasonable, and if you don’t obediently abide by her rules you’re bound to pay for it. Do just as she says, and you’ll likely improve your cooking skills.”

Having read and reread the column several times, I still suspect there is a bit of jest in the writer’s assertion, yet he at least appears serious in his first line, which he amplifies near the end of his advice: “Only within families can opinions be straightforwardly expressed.” The writer’s point appears to be that in Japan, people generally refrain from calling out another’s bad behavior, so one should be grateful for familial (passive-aggressive) indications of one’s shortcomings. It was quite a different — and intriguing — cultural take on a common type of household friction.

Applied linguists Tetsuo Kumatoridani and Megumi Murakami classified advice-giving into three basic categories: 1) only action, such as “Just ...”; 2) explanation of the current situation; and 3) description of how the future will be better, as well as a further four categories involving a combination of two or three of the basic categories. Using their classification, sociolinguist Keiko Abe analyzed 30 advice-dispensing radio programs in Japan and 30 in the United States.

She found that in 40 percent of the Japanese programs and 50 percent of the American programs, simply advocating action was the most common. For the Japanese programs, the second-most common type was describing the present situation, at 33 percent. On the other hand, in the American programs, the next most common type was action combined with a description of how the speaker’s life will improve, at 43 percent.

Abe further compared the type of action advocated by the Japanese and U.S. advice-givers. While the Americans often gave specific, practical advice, frequently making use of the imperative form, the Japanese counselors gave more general advice, such as, “Let your son keep his pride.”

Moreover, while the Americans envisaged the situation itself changing, the Japanese, in describing the present situation, sought to clarify the situational components with a view to aiding the advice-seeker in changing his or her attitude, not the situation, itself.

In discussing the Japanese programs, Abe notes, “Advisers imply that, if they changed their viewpoint, advice-seekers would be more content with the present situation than if they were to take action and make a change.”

Abe’s observation corresponds well to the recommendation provided by the unappreciated cook’s adviser. I hope that by seeing the situation through the perspective of gratitude for the frank family member, the man will be able to prepare meals more happily in the future. In my own case, my husband and I wisely refrain from getting too involved when the other is getting dinner ready.

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.Speech

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