I had an interesting “fish out of water” experience at work today. A guy with a cooler tote full of manju wandered into the staff room looking to sell his wares this afternoon. Though these type of salespeople have come to my apartment before, this was the first time I’ve ever seen one at work… not sure if that makes it an irregular occurrence or if I’ve just never noticed before, but whatever. Anyway, I was putzing around at my desk when the dude approached me and started showing me his stash of globular confections. Like all people in the service industry here, he presented himself with a big ol’ smile and overly chipper manner, as if he had baked the goodies himself from a family recipe (he didn’t; they were prepackaged)–thus making it hard to truly want to say no. However, the past couple of times I’d answered my front door to solicitors, I’d been suckered into buying sweets (that I didn’t even end up eating anyway) for the same reason; this time, I wanted to stick to my guns. So after feigning interest in the contents of his bag, I told him as politely as possible, “They look delicious! But I’m ok.” He bowed and moved onto my neighbor.
After he made the same short pitch to the teacher to my right, I was a little taken aback by C-Sensei’s weary response: “I’m doing work right now. I’m busy, you know?” This he muttered without so much as peeling his eyes away from his computer screen. A minute later, I heard the guy go up to one of the English teachers I work with, who said to him, a distant irritation in her voice that’d make you think he’d interrupted her in the middle of a meeting (nope, she was sitting at her desk on her own, just like the rest of us): “I’m sorry, but I’m so busy.” Finally the dude got the hint and walked out of the staff room, though his demeanor and lively spirit appeared unchanged. I, on the other hand, was the one left slightly stunned.
The situation perplexed me on a couple of counts–first off, my coworkers’ shortness with the guy seemed rude. Where I’m from, unless a salesperson is being unnecessarily pushy, it’s kind of jerkish to shoo him away with the reason that you’re “too busy.” A simple “thanks, but no thanks” is in good taste; pompously informing a person that he’s wasting your precious time is not. Secondly, it’s a workplace: clearly we’re all supposed to be “busy” to some extent (though it’s not like anyone was trying to keep the school from burning down at the moment, believe me). But say someone did decide they wanted to buy some manju. It’s not like it’s gonna take all day! Why would you claim to be too busy to reach into your wallet and pull out a few hundred yen when it’s obviously not true? Again, why not just “thanks, but no thanks”?
I make sense of today’s episode, again, in two ways. First, in Japan, people don’t like to be too direct about things. An outright “no” to another person’s query is considered rude, even if “no” is the real answer. That is why neither teacher said it to the salesguy. Perhaps even my reply, which was put nicely but still essentially “no,” was teetering on an insult. Next, Japanese people deeply value hard work (or the appearance of hard work, but I suppose unabashed slackers aren’t highly regarded in any culture). It follows that the reason that “I’m too busy” becomes the end-all, undisputed excuse to anything. Especially when trying to dodge a stranger whom you have no ties with.
Oh, culture sometimes. Shocking but true (fascinating, in fact). I’d like to say, though, that just because I’m able to explain a situation and define what is acceptable and not, doesn’t make the “norm” right, in my opinion. And I know my opinion reflects the values I was raised with. But at the end of the day, you really should just treat people as people, too. Whatever that means to you in turn may tell you something about the way you’re choosing to live, culture or no culture.