Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It often annoys or confuses me that no Japanese person seems able make a request of me without a wide smile (not a sign of friendliness, I eventually learned, but of discomfort). Imposing on another person in any way, or entering into any situation that has even the smallest possibility of leading to a conflict, is grounds for turbo-powered tension-defusing politeness, which means bows, smiles, and “thank-you-so-very-much-for-your-trouble”s and “I’m-so-very-sorry-to-have-inconvenienced-you-with-my-insignificant-request”s all around. This is especially true when addressing a foreigner, because one can never be sure when a foreigner is going to inexplicably go berserk, and because it’s vitally important that the foreigner have only good experiences and thoughts about Japan and Japanese people. Ironically, this never fails to rub me the wrong way. The thought has more than once flashed through my mind “if he apologizes one more time for asking me to prepared a 10-minute English game, I’m gonna punch him.” Thankfully I’ve been able to maintain my plastered smile instead, so far. When you think about it, however, most of the things we laugh at in the West are things out of control in some way, or something that turned out other than the doer intended. Seeing someone slipping on a banana peel, or jumping with fright, farting, diarrhea, sex, over-eating or drinking, and even death can all provoke roaring laughter or stifled giggles, especially when it’s clear that the victim of the laughter does not have himself under control. The sight of someone sitting on a toilet taking care of business, not funny. The sight of someone suddenly having to race to the bathroom and barely making it (or better yet, not making it), funny. Watching a civilized dinner, not funny. Watching someone discover that the pie is just too delicious to resist and messily inhaling the entire thing, funny. The strange thing is that humans don’t generally like it when the situations – or they themselves – are out of control. We like to be in control, and rarely appreciate being reminded of things that might instead control us. And so all these same things portrayed in a different way can be sources of discomfort: death, addiction, bodily functions, injury, and sex among the most potent conversation stoppers if handled clumsily. Perhaps what we think is pure joviality on our part is really the evolution of our own nervous laughter in the face of these things that could make us uncomfortable. It’s our way of handling it, and over time we’ve simply learned to call it “humor.” So it still bothers me that my colleagues seem so uncomfortable about asking me to do the smallest things, but it’s good to realize that we all have odd ways of handling our discomfort. Next time a wildly grinning colleague apologizes for interrupting my bored reading to give me something useful to do, I’ll just think about suddenly letting off a loud fart instead of hitting him.

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