CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / Bumping into some interesting research

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsSometimes I feel like I inhabit a different Japan than some other people around me. The most recent occasion was last December, when a friend posted an article on Facebook that decried the bad manners of Japanese people.

The article discussed four types of everyday bad behavior, beginning with pedestrians not stepping aside to avoid bumping into someone coming from the opposite direction. Almost no Japanese people were willing to yield, the writer asserted, causing him to always be the one to make way, even when it was awkward.

The writer’s experience was very different from my own. In my case, actually, it might be good if once in a while someone did not attempt to yield to me, as I am frequently the unwitting participant in the clumsy shuffle dances from left to right that arise when both people are trying to make room for the other. Yet many people commented on Facebook that they agreed with the article.

I did not doubt the sincerity of the disgruntled person, though it diverged from my own experience. I did what I always do: I tried to find pertinent research. Language researcher Carmella Lieske wrote an interesting paper titled “Bumping into someone: Japanese students’ perceptions and observations.” Lieske asked Japanese female nursing students whether they would apologize to someone if they bumped into them in both Japan and the United States. All the students said they would apologize in both contexts and further asserted that all Japanese people, young or old, would do so.

Next, Lieske asked them to observe people bumping into each other in public places in Japan and the United States. The students spotted 23 bumps in the United States, and in every case the person responsible apologized. The most common type of apology was a request for forgiveness, like “Excuse me,” stated in 44 percent of the cases. This was followed by an expression of regret, such as “I’m sorry,” employed in 30 percent of the situations, or an exclamation (like “Oh!”) together with an expression of regret, with a frequency of 22 percent.

On the other hand, Lieske’s students witnessed 79 collisions in Japan and, against their predictions, in 37 percent of the cases the collider did not make an apology. Forty-three percent expressed regret, saying things like “sumimasen” or “gomen,” and 13 percent made an exclamation plus an expression of regret. Only 1 percent made a request for forgiveness.

What you say — if anything — after bumping into someone, and moving aside to allow someone to pass are somewhat different actions, but Lieske’s findings suggest that different social routines may be at play on the streets of Japan and the United States. And as always, when cultures diverge, it is a common tendency to pass judgement on which is better, as in the case of the writer who criticized Japanese manners.

Yet these types of behaviors are on a continuum. Lieske cites the research of the applied linguist Malgorzata Suszczynska, who collected data on what Americans, Poles and Hungarians thought they would say if they bumped into a woman in a supermarket, causing her to drop her packages, so I decided to take a look at this as well.

Suszczynska’s research revealed various differences, but one of the most interesting was how the content of the “offer of help” varied, especially between the American and Polish participants. All the American respondents made an offer of help, as did 80 percent of the Polish research participants. However, the Americans simply offered to help pick up the packages, whereas 24 percent of the Polish respondents proposed taking the woman home or wherever she was going in addition to assisting with the parcels.

Similarly, while 70 percent of the Americans expressed concern, compared to 40 percent of the Hungarians, the American expression of concern was generally a formulaic, “Are you OK?” This nonspecific question did not appear at all in the Hungarian data. Instead, the Hungarians asked more detailed questions, like “Is your leg hurting?” Twenty percent further expressed concern about whether the packages had been damaged. Some additionally used words of engagement, like “Wait, ...” or “Come, …”

Clearly the norms for what to do in these kinds of collision-avoidance or post-bump situations vary depending on culture. The data set from Lieske’s students was not large, and the differences in results may have been influenced by a number of factors. But I found it interesting that Lieske’s students had believed that Japanese people apologize every time, when according to their own findings only 63 percent did. I myself would not have predicted 100 percent frequency, but I was surprised nonetheless that there was quite a gap between the Japanese and American apology rate.

Naturally I’ve had my share of being smacked into by a person coming the other way who simply plowed by without even a glance in my direction. Yet I tend to remember the nice people more than the boorish ones. Many years ago, when I had only been in Japan for a few years, I was riding my bicycle when a car pulled out of a side street, causing me to almost fall down. I was very annoyed as the car continued to move forward, but then the driver pulled to the curb, stepped out and hurried back to see if I was all right. I was impressed by his concern and looking back, this encounter may have played an essential part in the formation of my view of Japan as by and large a country of decent, caring people. And it’s carried me through quite happily for more than 30 years.

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

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