Beginning as We Mean to Go On

by Doreen Simmons

Somnolent Aunt Eva arouses herself to ruminate on a problem of status, real and apparent. How can we avoid projecting the wrong image, especially when even our own preconceptions are working against us?

Dear Aunt Eva,

(Or should that be “Ms Hartupp”? You see, I’ve suddenly become sensitive about handles.) But I’m jumping into the middle of my problems. Let me go back to what, with the wisdom of hindsight, I now realize was the beginning.

I grew up in a free-and-easy generation of a free-and-easy society. Everybody, but everybody, was on first-name terms, right up to the CEO. Had to be, in fact; otherwise you were labeled “stuffy.” And if you were young and bright, it was even better to have a cute pet name that everyone could relate to. That’s how I became “Mopsy” (don’t ask).

In my teens and 20s, I’d say, “Hi! I’m Mopsy!” and everybody answered, “Hi, Mopsy!” and the vibes were right. Then at the age of 30-something I was transferred to Japan, to a job I thought would be a big step up. Suddenly the things that had always worked well for me didn’t work so well any more. I’d taken a crash course in Japanese so I was able to say “Moppushii desu” as well as “Hi! I’m Mopsy!”

But although things seemed fine at first, I soon began to realize that I was being treated as a lightweight. I have specialized knowledge and business expertise, but instead of being properly utilized, I am regarded as a nice kid who is available for socializing in English.

I also notice that all my Japanese colleagues, whether above or below me in the official pecking order, are called by their family names: Sato-san or Kato-san, or, more usually, by their titles and family names, Sato Kacho and Kato Kakaricho; nobody is just “Akira” or “Hiroko.” But I’m still “Mopsy!” I’m not quite the only one in this position; there’s “Dave,” who comes in twice a week from a language school on contract to teach English classes.

Now I’m thinking of setting up my own consultancy. This gives me a chance for a fresh start. Aunt Eva, do you have any suggestions about how I can avoid falling into the same trap? How can I project the skilled professional image I need?

Signed, Wanda Leavitt, (formerly Mopsy)

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Ms. Leavitt (let’s begin as we mean to go on):

This is indeed a problem, and one potentially faced by all foreigners in Japan or working for Japanese. It is perhaps more of a problem for women, who are often still regarded ex officio as lightweights, but it exists also for men, especially youthful ones.

In one of her nine lives, however, this old tabby worked in a language school that insisted on using given names not only for the teachers, but also for students of all ages. (The only exception was the private students, who could choose, presumably because they were paying top yen.) On the whole, this policy worked remarkably well. It generated a cheerful atmosphere, since it removed the social distinctions from the classroom; the students could escape from the stratified society created and upheld by the Japanese nomenclature.

This practice, common in language schools both good and bad, however, was carried over into all aspects of teaching. There has been some progress in the past couple of decades, but it is largely at the insistence of the teachers.

For instance, take the case of three highly qualified teachers who were hired to teach a joint course at Keio, designed to prepare high-flying students for graduate studies abroad after graduation. It was assumed that teachers and students would all be on first-name terms “because that is the American way.” One teacher (guess who?) demurred, and took the initiative by informing the class, “Some universities continue the tradition of formality, and so to make sure that you can also cope with this level, in my class you will call me ‘Mrs.’ and I will call you ‘Mr.’ and ‘Miss.’” One former student, now an international financier in his 40s recalls with pride, “You were the first person ever to call me ‘Mr. N.’” A simple insistence on basic courtesy became a rite of passage.

What does this have to do with your problem, Ms. Leavitt? Only that Aunt Eva had to start this custom, and had to maintain it consistently. You simply have to chip away at the Japanese assumption that they shouldn’t deal with foreigners as they would deal with other Japanese. Then you have to chip away at the assumption that once they’ve learned a different approach, it won’t automatically fit all foreigners. We sometimes forget what a great adventure it is to so many young Japanese to speak to a foreigner; and at school, one greeting at a time is all that’s safe to teach. In real life, though, one greeting is not suitable for all foreigners. Even in the same society there are many social levels; even in the same social level, there are differences of gender and generation. Many native speakers, even, have a tin ear for these subtle gradations. How many letters to Ann Landers have we read from ladies of mature years who complain of outrage at having extremely young waitpersons addressing them by their first names? Aunt Eva herself was brought up in a more formal, though not necessarily more gracious, society, and it occasionally grates on her nerves when a person less than half her age addresses her chummily as “Eva.“In the wrong circumstances, the use of the given name can give the same effect as calling a grown man “Boy.” Being familiar with a stranger is not friendly—it diminishes the other person.

The golden rule is to look around you and see how the Japanese are treating each other, then get yourself onto the same level. Insist that you are called what you want to be called. Even before you make direct contact, take great care in preparing your meishi. Let there be no great discrepancy between one side and the other. Remember that if once you get sidetracked into the “Mopsy” rut, you will be stuck there. Occasionally you will be greeted with a knowing (“You can’t fool me; I already know the right way to treat foreigners” smirk and a repetition of the offending name. There are several ways of dealing with this, none of them good or nice, and they vary according to how important or necessary the dimwit is to you: ignore him, instruct him, laugh lightly, go over your meishi line by line because he appears not to have got the point, get his name wrong—not necessarily in that order. But the most important thing is to begin as you mean to go on, and stick to it. Oh, and lose the people who knew you as Mopsy.

Signed, Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 94 (September 2001)