Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Teaching Students What Not to Say

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

When I worked in Singapore, I lived in an apartment block where most of the other inhabitants were Chinese Singaporeans. I regularly met other people from the block in the elevators and in the food courts, and they were always very friendly and chatty. Unsurprisingly, the first question people normally asked me was, “Where are you from?” I found this quite normal and inoffensive, but I have to admit that I was more than a bit thrown by the inevitable second question the first few times I was asked: “How much rent do you pay?” Just to be clear, I am not saying that one or two people asked me this—almost everyone did! The reason that people asked this was apparently that most ex-pats lived in much more expensive places, and the Singaporeans were fascinated to know whether we were paying the same rent as them or whether we were paying more. Unfortunately, of course, “How much rent do you pay?” is not a question that people would normally ask someone they had just met in my country, so being asked it made me reluctant to develop the conversation with that person any further.

Of course, this was Singapore, so the problem was not one of language; it was more a question of cultural differences. When a language barrier is added, the problem becomes even more acute, and learners of English can often unwittingly create a bad first impression by asking or saying something inappropriate, or something that causes them to be perceived as being dull. In other words, the problem for a language learner might not how they are saying something, but rather the fact that they are saying it at all.

I have been living in Japan for a total of 15 years now, and I often find myself not wanting to talk to a Japanese person because of something they have asked me or a comment they have made. I should point out, of course, that this is not something that is unique to Japan. I have been embarrassed many times while walking in Britain with Japanese people to hear my countrymen screaming “Ni hao!” at them from across the street. In most cases, I think these people are trying to be friendly, but that does not make it any less inappropriate.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of “things that you should not say to people from other countries.” These are:

1) Questions or comments that may be inappropriate, rude, or even offensive.
2) Questions or comments that are not rude, but that will annoy the other person because they have heard them so often.

An example of the first category would be a question like “How old are you?” or a comment like “Wow, you have such a big nose!” The interesting thing about this category is that many of the questions are ones that no Japanese person would ever dream of asking another Japanese person that they had just met. “How old are you?” is a prime example of this. For some reason, people of all nationalities have a tendency to forget social norms when they speak to someone from another country. It is as if they think that because the person does not share their cultural background, all bets are off and anything goes.

A more problematic type of question from the first category is one that would be appropriate to ask someone from your own country, but that might seem very strange to other people. For example, British people are known all over the world for our penchant for endless (and largely pointless) discussions about the weather. When we learn another language, therefore, we need to learn whether that topic is an appropriate one for people of the other culture.

In Japan, the default topic for general conversation with people you do not know very well is not the weather, but food. It is almost impossible for a foreigner to have even a short conversation with a Japanese person without being asked about their culinary preferences. When I first came to Japan, I assumed that I was being asked about this because of my “foreigness,” and I found it more than a bit annoying. One day, however, I was in a car driving to a ski resort with two Japanese people who talked for—and I am not exaggerating here—more than an hour about the different types of breakfast eaten by people from Osaka and people from Tokyo. Apparently, food was something of a hot topic for the Japanese!

This discovery led me to realize that if I wanted to talk to Japanese people in Japanese, I would need to understand and accept that it is part of their culture to discuss food with people they have just met, no matter how strange that topic might be for me. I dare say a Japanese person I did not know would be a bit surprised if I tried to strike up a conversation about the weather! Equally, however, if I am teaching a Japanese person how to communicate in English, then it is an important part of my job to teach them what is and what is not an appropriate subject to talk about with someone that you do not know very well.

The second category I mentioned above is a bit more complicated. It basically consists of things that would not bother a short-term visitor to Japan, but that get extremely annoying for people who have lived here for a long time. As I mentioned above, Japanese people like to ask each other about what foods they like and dislike. In the case of foreigners, however, the discussion generally defaults to one question: “Do you like natto?” For those who do not know, natto is a kind of fermented bean that has a very strong taste. Many Japanese people do not like it, and it is almost impossible for a foreigner to meet a Japanese person and not be asked, “Do you like natto?” within the first minute or so. I sometimes wonder what happens in meetings between senior diplomats from Japan and those from the West: “So, Mrs. Clinton, putting aside these pesky North Koreans for a minute, can I ask you something that I’ve been wondering about for quite some time now…?”

Apart from the fact that anyone who has been in Japan for any length of time becomes utterly sick of being asked this question, there is also the problem of appearing to be looking for differences between you and the person you are talking to. One explanation I have heard for why Japanese people do this suggests that it reaffirms their sense of Japanese “uniqueness” to establish clear differences between themselves and people from other countries. Whether that is true or not, English teachers need to explain to our Japanese students that it is more productive when speaking in English to try to find things you have in common with the person you are talking to rather than things that accentuate the differences between you.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to write about this topic was that I would love to hear about the experiences of teachers in other countries. Do particular nationalities have a tendency to ask a particular type of question? Are your students ever offended by things that would be quite acceptable in English-speaking countries? How do you address this topic with your students, and what is their reaction?

Look forward to hearing your stories.


Comment from Kat
November 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I’m Ukrainian teaching English to Ukrainians and my people )) are usually as inappropriate about money related topics, they would ask you about both rent AND your salary.
Thanks for the article!

Comment from David Barker
November 10, 2011 at 5:38 am

Hi Kat,
Glad you found it useful. I’ll remember that if I ever go to the Ukraine!

Comment from Bahieh Khamsi
November 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Hi David!!

I am an English teacher based in Ecuador.

I really enjoyed your article. This part definitely rings a bell: “For some reason, people of all nationalities have a tendency to forget social norms when they speak to someone from another country.”

Not many topics are inappropriate in the Latin culture but I find people to be overly curious with foreigners!!

People will often ask about money (How much do you make?) or personal life. I have learnt to either try and avoid responding by using humour or simply saying: “in my culture, you don’t ask such things!”

I find humour and courtesy always help in dealing with cultural differences (and nosy people!).

Best regards,
Bahieh Amelia Khamsi

Comment from R. K.
November 13, 2011 at 8:25 pm

It’s funny, the age question is both #1 and 2 here in Korea because age is a very important part of the language structure here. You use deferential grammar if speaking to an older person and informal grammar if speaking to a younger person, so they almost always ask how old someone is. When I teach my students introductions I ask what information they should give when meeting someone for the first time. They always say name and age. I teach them that in western culture we tell our name and where we are from.
The other rude question is “Are you Russian?” They are basically asking if you are a prostitute, though I didn’t know that for the first six months or so… It was very confusing!

Comment from David
November 14, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Hi R.K.,

I can’t say that I have ever noticed that with Korean students, but then again, I have never lived in Korea. I guess the age thing is part of the culture in a lot of Asian countries. Having said that, I don’t think that Japanese people would ever ask each other about their age. Of course, that doesn’t stop them when it comes to foreigners!

Comment from Marybeth
December 6, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Blogs are a great way of staying up-to-date on current customs to ensure that you don’t do or say something offensive in your new home! Having worked with ex-pat populations, some of the materials put together by consultants may be really outdated…and don’t take into account emerging “slang”. Great input from everyone here!!

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