I’ve been working for this company for a couple of months now, and I am confident in the knowledge that there exist a few, clear, cultural differences.
Cultural Observation #1, despite the politeness around the office I have discovered this doesn’t mean you can’t insult each other.
Being the kind of person who takes the exchange of insults as a match of skills this is very frustrating. From a young age my parents instructed me that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” I realize that for some kids this isn’t true, for me it always was. I adored verbal dueling; the thrill of coming up with a putdown so funny no one could work out if it was really that insulting or just a wicked rip. So as stated, I find the office needlessly formal, and devoid of verbal sparring. I like arguing and making threats and insulting, because the people who know me, know that this is just my natural effervescent, show-off, loudmouth-self, and that I mean it all in jest.
This doesn’t fly here. However that doesn’t stop my more by the book colleagues. They will find indirect ways to put me down, tell me I’m wrong or tell me how my behavior is not in-keeping with Japanese norms.
I discovered this a couple of days ago, quite by accident, one of my colleagues asked me what I was doing after work. After pitter pattering around the subject to make sure she wasn’t fishing for an invitation, I made a joke! MISTAKE!
It rains here, a gargantuan amount. My joke consisted of pointing out the window and saying something along the lines of “Well I’m going to practice my back-stroke then maybe canoe home”. I know it’s not great. What can I say, sometimes I’m on the ball, sometimes I’m not even in the right ballpark. Hell, sometimes I’m not even playing the right sport. What happened next took me by surprise; my colleague asked me where I went swimming. Thinking we had another miscommunication I explained it was all a joke. She looked at me severely and said “My brother tells many jokes, this is why no one will hire him, or date him, unserious people are never successful in their lives” she paused looked at me and continued “I suppose you are different though”. Cool, so I’m funny and a failure or I’m the exception to your odd little life lesson.
My friend who studied Japanese at university laughed her *ss off when I told her this. “You got slammed!”. Did I? My friend explained that this was a typical Japanese coping mechanism. Telling me she thought humour was stupid, and that so was I to my face would be considered rude. Who knew? What my colleague had done was use a proxy insult. In this scenario as I share traits with her brother, any insult laid on the brother are by extension laid on me. YAY! So insults in the workplace have to be subversive, and the myth of the polite Japanese workers is fractured. The more you know.
This means that now I have to come up with proxy insults that are amazing, and then insult someone else, then link them to the person I want to insult. It’s like I just leveled up and the game got WAY harder.
Cultural Observation # 2, Japanese do have humor, it is just not the same as mine.
So as I pointed out, my jokes tend to bomb around here. Also being a sarcastic *ss, which is my default setting, is frowned upon, in a proxy, “my cousin is a douche and sarcastic, but you are different I guess” kind of way.
Anyway, it is true that several of my colleagues are humor deficient. But not all of them. I found this out in a painful inclusion to a joke telling. I was so thrilled to be included in the ‘fun’ circle of people who make jokes that it made this experience all the more painful.
I was beckoned over to a group of 3 and one of the guys began to tell a joke, in English, for my benefit. The joke began with him describing in detail each character, in fact so much so that I can almost tell you their marital status and Health Insurance numbers. The story had one prop, a pencil, which was used to symbolize chopsticks, a pen, a pointy finger, and some other stuff that I didn’t pay attention to.. The cast of thousands was played by the guy making the joke. I say joke, but it was more like a very, very un-funny story that wouldn’t end. The funniest thing about the joke was the impressions, but seeing as they seemed to all be the same voice with little change, I didn’t get the difference. According to YS, they are all staple characters of this style of Japanese joke.
I would be remiss to say I understood 90% of what was going on. So at the end of a 5 minute monologue all my colleagues were laughing behind their hands and I was standing with my eyebrows furrowed and a frozen half-smile. The only thought running through my head is, “Why is that funny?”. So I played the minority card- “sorry guys I’m a gaijin, I don’t get it”
No one seems to have called me on that one yet. Although I do get questions about my eyes: things must seem so much brighter with pale eyes! Do you see in shade of blue? Can you see in the dark? I mean REALLY??? Guys, WTF…
Cultural Observation #3, work hours are flexible, and when I say that I mean you arrive on time and leave late.
I work from 9a.m. until 5:36p.m. exactly. I usually get in the office about five to nine to make coffee, organize the day’s paperwork, warm up my computer, connect to the network server in Japan (which takes a stupid amount of time), get the switchboard ready to be inundated with calls. Recently though, two of my bosses have been waiting until I’m halfway out the door for me to do something due at 9a.m. the next day. My company doesn’t offer overtime. If it did I wouldn’t mind. But they don’t, also the work tends to be stuff my bosses have had for days, but ask me at the last minute to do it. Not that I can’t, I can, and usually a lot faster than they could. My issue is, why wait until I’m on my way home to make me do it? The middle section of my day is empty (hence the blog posts) and I ask everyday if there is anything I can do for them. Is this a cultural thing or jack*ss thing?
Since I started here, I have been late twice. Each time by less than five minutes. Now I’m not usually the first in, but I’m usually the second, but when I’m late GODDAMN!!! They rain fire and sulphur down upon my head. It’s not even as though I’m the last in, but you would think from their reaction that I just roundhouse kicked their favorite grandma in the face then stole her purse to spend the money on crack. It’s pretty unjust. Also I’m the only one who ever gets that, so I’m calling no-fairs (and possibly taking my gaijin-card out of my wallet again and waving it at them).
To be frank though, I like this office, okay so they all act like humorless, emotionally shut off robots. I wouldn’t say it was better than my last job. I once heard my previous boss yelling down a phone at some poor girl “I know they hired you because of your boobs, or because they know your parents never in my life have I encountered anyone as incapable as you” bear in mind, my office was on the same floor but furthest from his, and I heard every word of that conversation from my desk. Boy could that guy yell!
Of course that job had the added bonus that we were all under so much pressure that once a week we would descend into yelling at each other from hallway to hallway, and would throw stuff at each other until someone broke into tears (although that was a lot of fun to watch, and I may have made the tears happen once or twice).