How Polite is Too Polite?

On June 25, 2015

I walk up to the register and put my melon bread on the counter. Before doing anything, the clerk puts two hands across her waist. She bows, almost deep enough to hit her head on the already low counter. After she tells me the price, I hand her a crisp 1000 yen, which she takes ever so delicately in both hands.

Following the exchange she returns my change; coins lined up by value in one hand while another is hovering under my own outstretched hand. She bows one final time as I leave.

When I first came to Japan, these moments would make me feel like I was the only customer in a store brimming over with people. I felt like store owners generally valued my business. Before knowing this was the norm, I returned their politeness with ill-pronounced ‘domo-arigatou’s’ and awkward bows as I left the store or restaurant. Nowadays I’m barely phased by this high level of respect found throughout the country.

Roaming through various stores, I’ve come to develop a habit of keeping my eyes low, head bent slightly down. My own posture has changed because of my host culture. At first I didn’t understand why so many Japanese people also did it. Every time a store clerk would greet them, they would totally ignore the gesture. It seemed borderline disrespectful to me at the time. But in the years living here (and I’m surprised at myself for saying this) I noticed that the regimented and excessive politeness can sometimes feel a bit overbearing.

I miss the casual politeness back in the States; being able to strike up a conversation with whoever might be taking my order

I barely look at waiters in the eyes anymore. Because at any moment I could get hit with a barrage of run-on honorific speech, bows, and huge smiles. After the whole ordeal has ended and my brain cuts out all the fluff, I realize that all the waiter said was, “Please enjoy the salad bar while you wait for your food.”

Maybe I miss the casual politeness back in the States; being able to strike up a conversation with whoever might be taking my order. Yet the more I think about it, those light conversations are probably used to the same effect as honorific speech (敬語 (けいご)) is used in Japan. It’s all to make the customer feel at ease and respected.

Japan has spoiled me with its extremely high customer service; so much that gestures of respect can sometimes go unnoticed. Yet even among all this, Japan still finds a way to surprise me every so often:

“Sumimasen!” (Excuse me!)

I turn around to a man with calloused hands, wearing an apron. Absolutely out of breath.

“Wasuremono desu.” (Something you forgot)

Inside of his hand was a sheet of paper I must have left at the restaurant I just ate at, a whole block away. It was nothing too important, but my face lit up at the fact that he came running all that way just to hand it to me. Not to mention leaving his busy post.

I gave the man a deep bow and we parted ways. I guess this politeness isn’t to overbearing after all.


Trekkie trekking through the Nihon quadrant.
  • mei3ss says:

    Great post!
    I had the exact same experience in Japan. I would see all these people just not say Hi or greet anyone. I thought it was really weird and just anti-social. A lot of people just looked dark or depressed.

    But as the years went by, I find myself also in a rush and in my own world ignoring the clerk behind the counter. I figure if anyone is gonna strike up that conversation with a staff, its got to be the quirky-gaijin.

  • Macarons & Sakura Tea says:

    Politeness is a good thing. It is a manifestation of respect. In some cultures, particularly in East Asia, it serves as an integral part, culture-specific that is. In my home country, it is considered an affront not to observe a gesticulation called ”pagmamano” [asking for the hand of an ascendant or elder you have a relationship [blood, moral ascendancy or some other relation] with and brushing it against your forehead while slightly bowing]. The words ”opo”, ”po” or ”ho” are also incorporated in speech or in writing as indicators of politeness or respect. As a foreigner, it is good to be -cognisant of the ways of the people of the country we are traveling to or living in to be able to return, at least, the basic of courtesies. A proverb says to be too polite is to be rude but, I guess, it pretty much depends on the circumstances.

  • maulinator says:

    One does get spoiled in Japan. Whenever I go bakc to the US, I get reminded of that fact. While in most cases, the services is OK in the US, the average is far lower than in Tokyo. I experience food at restaurants getting slammed onto the table, non-responsive staff at department stores, cab drivers who do not speak the langauge etc. And these people work for tips! In Japan service people in food industry or retail do not work generally on commission or tips, but they still service you politely and at least with feigned respect (as it is part of the job). What is weird is that in the US the same type of people do not seem to want to work for the tip and expect it. I always tip, but I feel that sometimes it is not deserved. Whatever your job you should do the best that you can do, or as Louis CK says, “do the shit out of your jobm,” whatever it is. Sometimes in the US the staff at a hot night club or restaurant openly disdains their clientele, which is weird as these are the people paying your salary at the end. “YOu have to wait an extra 2 hours even though you booked at table at 8PM- not our problem! Wait or leave, we don’t care.”
    This attitude is found at certain high end restaurants in NYC- Wolfgang’s steakhouse for example, and obviously my friends and I never go back, but I just think that it is so counterintuitive, illogical behavior.
    I have been treated excellently at other places in the US so it is not everyone, but it is more rampant than in Japan.
    The one advantage as mentioned in the article, is that it is easier to maintain a rapport with the staff at places, and therefore it becomes easier to become one fo the ‘regulars” in the US whereas in Japan it takes a bit more time to develop such a relationship with the staff. You do see that type of rapport evolve quicker in some of the more rural areas of Japan though, which is always nice

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