Dealing With Difficult Coworkers
By Mark Guthrie
As an ALT working in the public schooling system, there are many great things about starting life in a new placement. It is a chance to start over fresh, everything is exciting, and it is a great opportunity to make new friends with staff and students alike. In fact the new students are probably the best thing, because sometimes being the ‘token gaijin’ in the school can be like being royalty.
Just walking amongst your new students can bring stares of amazement, friends poking each other, pointing in your direction. A simple ‘hello’ can bring fits of giggles, and whether you are an adorable, genki twenty-something, or (to pull an example completely by random) a balding overweight thirty-something, even a smile can induce squeals of ‘kawaiiiiii!’
Unfortunately, not everyone will consider you the bees’ knees. There is a possibility that some kids may give you the evil eye, and you may even hear the word ‘gaijin’ muttered in a less than positive tone than you read on these pages. However, the most difficult thing is when this occurs in the staffroom, and it is one of your new Japanese colleagues who is either clearly ambivalent to your presence, or even being positively hostile. But if that happens, what can you do?
Understanding is key
Well, the first thing to realise is that your new co-worker, rather than actually disliking you, is in fact possibly a little intimidated by you. There is a good chance that you are one of the few non-Japanese that they have met, particularly if your placement is in a rural area. As such they may be concerned that cultural differences might cause problems. What happens if you tried to shake their hand while they bowed? What if you are blunt and rude like the gaijin in anime? Surely the embarrassment would be unbearable. No, it’s safer to keep a steely distance than chance it.
Nihongo wo hanashite kudasai
As well as possible cultural faux pas, it is distinctly possible that the teacher is worried about his or her poor English, and will choose to ignore you rather than stumble in a language they barely remember from high school. In one of my first placements, the teacher at the next desk to me barely acknowledged my presence for six months, and I presumed that I simply wasn’t her cup of tea.
Then on my final day she brought an English teacher to my desk. Through her translator, she told me how much she had enjoyed working alongside me, and apologised that her lack of English had hindered any interaction, leaving me to rue my missed opportunity. While my Japanese at the time was next to non-existent, had I gone out of my way to struggle through perhaps our working relationship would have been better.
Put your best foot forward
On my first day at the aforementioned placement, in my greeting speech to the staffroom I had spoken in English and apologised that I could not speak any Japanese. I now believe this to be the reason for my colleague’s apprehension. At my next school I tried a different tact, telling the staffroom, in Japanese, that although my language skills were lamentably poor, I was studying so, please speak to me in Japanese. This had a remarkable effect, helping me spark immediate friendships. I also took care to be as open, friendly and accessible as possible. You’ll be amazed how far a cheery ‘ohayo gozaimasu!!’ will get you.
Bribery can help
Okay, buying friends isn’t always the best thing, but it can help show colleagues that you have a grasp on Japanese workplace culture. If you go away, bring omiyage, souvenirs, to be distributed amongst the teachers, thus demonstrating that you understand Japanese culture (and in doing so showing that you may not be as ready to make those faux pas as people expect). Also offer your help.
Many ALTs find that they have plenty of time on their hands, so why not use that to your advantage? Your Japanese colleagues will doubtless have mountains of work, so why not offer to help out with their club activity responsibilities, freeing them up for a precious hour here and there. It reveals an understanding for their difficulties as well as showing great school spirit.
Ask for help
Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and despite all your effort, you might still find that someone doesn’t like the cut of your jib. If this is the case, then you might just be tempted to square up to them and ask nanika monku ano (basically ‘what’s your effing problem?’) Well, I’m afraid that this is unlikely to get you anywhere.
Any air-clearing talks will probably require advanced levels of keigo (the most polite way of speaking in Japanese), assuming you don’t want to make the situation worse. The best suggestion is to contact your dispatch company and ask for them to intervene on your behalf. They should be able to contact the school and perhaps get to the bottom of any disagreement. But be warned, some companies may be somewhat reluctant to bring up grievances, as their business model relies on keeping a good relationship with the school, and some organisations may balk at the idea of upsetting the apple cart
Grin and bear
But what if all of this gets you nowhere. Well, on the positive side of things, Japan has a culture of non-confrontation, so the chances are that no one will be badmouthing you to your face, spitting in your bento or tying your shoelaces together when you’re not looking. So, if you can, maybe you just have to be the bigger person.
Smile through their animosity, and comfort yourself with the probability that their dislike for you is nothing more than petty jealousy. Because, let’s face it, you’re an awesome teacher, everyone else loves you and as you walk through school high-fiving students, they are the butts of the classroom jokes, and their lessons are stupefying dull compared to what you do. Haterz gonna hate. You’re better than that.