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Saturday, April 8, 2006


In America, a smile gets you everywhere

A couple of weeks ago in this column, I gave some tips for foreigners visiting Japan. One reader suggested that in my next column, I give some tips for Japanese visiting the United States. So here goes: Amy's rigorous guide to what NOT to do when visiting the U.S.

News photo
Japanese kids learn early how to be cute.

Drop the slurping: Not all noodles are created equal. Spaghetti is Italian, and although it may look like a noodle and taste like a noodle, do not slurp it like a noodle! Remember, the real reason to slurp noodles in Japan is to cool them down. Spaghetti is not eaten at high temperatures, so slurping is like broadcasting rudeness over an in-mouth loudspeaker.

Leave behind the "o-battalion" gangs: Japanese abroad have the reputation as being loud and pushy. I suspect this comes from the Japanese tendency to travel in large groups, which can be overwhelming for Americans, since we seldom do anything in a group unless forming a street gang. "O-battalion" gangs on shopping sprees will not be looked upon favorably in the U.S. Nor will age get you any points. Even "o-baa-chans" have to stand in line and wait their turn.

Watch your gestures: If your English is not up to par, you may find yourself gesturing through most situations. Gesturing is an acceptable way to communicate, as long as it doesn't take over when simple English would suffice.

The Japanese "chopping hand" gestures, such as the one used to clear a path through a crowd, or the "batsu" gesture (karate-chopping hands together to form an X) to mean "no" are a little extreme for Americans.

A verbal "excuse me" to get through a crowd or a simple "no" are considered more polite than either of the chopping hand gestures.

If you are too paralyzed with fear to speak English, rather than the batsu gesture, simply shake your head side to side to mean "no."

The best gesture in America is a smile -- it will get you everywhere.

Acknowledge greetings: Japanese are often said to be "cold" and unfriendly in the U.S. Don't give people the "cold shoulder" by not responding to greetings, even if you don't know the person. Be aware that strangers often say hello to each other in the U.S., especially when in a controlled environment, such as inside an office building or in a small town where everyone knows each other.

In larger, more public areas, such as the middle of a city or on a bus, it is not necessary to say hello to complete strangers. But if someone does say hello to you, no matter where you are, always acknowledge the greeting. If you flash a smile and say hello back to people, everyone will like you.

Mind your photo behavior: Whether you're on vacation or not, avoid canned photos when having your picture taken with Americans. I understand this is very hard for Japanese, since they instantly react to any camera lens with the "peace sign" gesture -- or, if a child, by cocking the head and striking a cute pose. Americans consider the photo ruined if someone is giving the peace sign, which is up there with "rabbit ears" in maturity. (Rabbit ears are a variation of the peace sign, but with hands placed just behind the head of an unsuspecting person standing in front of you, thus giving them the appearance of having "ears" in the photo).

Hamming it up in a photo, however, is completely acceptable. Striking a funny or spontaneous pose is fine, as long as it is original. And remember, smile!

Mind your dental hygiene: Cosmetic appearance is important in the American business world, and while the Japanese tend to dress impeccably, dental hygiene has never been high on their list. Americans will be put off by neglected teeth and bad breath. Brush your teeth after every meal and again before meetings. Floss like your dentist told you to.

Now you're ready for all those smiles!

Planet Japan: www.planetjapan.org
Animal Tales: amychavez.blogspot.com

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