Cultural Conundrums / Communicating Togetherness Through Commerce in 2 Different Cultures

As a young child, I was the type of kid that friends’ mothers loved. “Kate is so polite!” they’d gush to my contented mother when she came to pick me up after a playdate. Like most people, I sailed through life pretty much sure I knew what was courteous and what was rude, without reflecting on it much. But studying applied linguistics exposed me to other ways of evaluating verbal behavior that at times seemed counterintuitive, but which also aided me in understanding Japan’s unfamiliar social dynamics.

The terms “positive politeness” and “negative politeness,” proposed several decades ago by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, delineate the differing ways that a speaker may respectively address a listener’s desire to be liked, appreciated, and so on, as well as their contrasting desire not to be impinged upon. Stated abstractly, this sounds fine to most people initially encountering the terms. It’s when they examine the linguistic strategies Brown and Levinson present that things can start to get a bit fiddly.

Negative politeness includes verbal behavior such as not making presumptions, minimizing impositions, or apologizing for encroaching, through expressions like, “I was wondering if…”, “Would it be possible if I could have just a bit of…”, “I’m sorry to bother you but…”. So far, so good. Positive politeness, on the other hand, typically makes optimistic assumptions, uses in-group markers, and cracks jokes along the lines of “I’m sure you won’t mind if I…”, “Hey, buddy…”, “How about lending me this old heap of junk?” (about a new car). At this point, many may become perplexed, wondering how such expressions could be labeled “polite.”

Linguistic ethnographers Risako Ide and Kaori Hata have circumnavigated “positive politeness” and “negative politeness,” employing “bonding” instead, in a book they edited in 2020 titled “Bonding through Context: Language and Interactional Alignment in Japanese Situated Discourse.” In one chapter, discourse analyst Lindsay Yotsukura examines the divergent ways bonding is achieved between companies and customers in English and Japanese, through an analysis of membership registration and online orders of booksellers such as Amazon, Kinokuniya, Book-Off and Barnes & Noble. While the content is often similar, the relationship created by the companies with their customers varies significantly between the two cultures based on the types of expressions used.

The messages of the U.S. booksellers brim with assurance and familiarity, often in a manner that corresponds to Brown and Levinson’s positive politeness strategies. The bare imperative is used frequently, as in, “Be on the lookout”, “Visit us again soon”, “Just click to…”. Words related to the customer experience are of the hail-fellow-well-met sort: “Enjoy” and “exclusive” are sometimes used repeatedly in the same message, and the company describes itself with confidence, as in “We’ve got thousands of new titles” or “We’ve got just the book you’re looking for!” At the same time, the messages intimate that the bookseller understands the customer well, with statements like, “We know you are excited to receive your order so…” or “We know it can be hard to find the perfect read.” In a final positive politeness strategy, one company asserts: “You’ve read this far into the email, which makes you a true reader. Thank you for shopping with us.” Uh, really? The bar on being a “true reader” seems set awfully low, but effusive exaggeration is part and parcel of positive politeness.

The communication of the Japanese booksellers is another story. The benefactive verb “itadaku” (receive) abounds, so that actions that are for the sake of the customer are expressed as serving the company instead, as in the common expression “go-kakunin itadakemasu.” In English this becomes “You may confirm,” but it literally means, “We may receive your confirmation.” Even services that are clearly for the benefit of the customer are portrayed as simultaneously aiding the company. For example, “Ika no saabisu o go-riyo itadakemasu” translates as “You may utilize the services below,” but the “itadakemasu” implies the company also benefits from such customer utilization.

Similarly, where an English message might state, “It may take some time for us to respond to your inquiry,” the Japanese is phrased “Ojikan o chodai suru koto ga gozaimasu,” making use of “chodai,” a variant of “itadaku,” thereby flipping the burden. The customer is not taking the company’s time through their inquiry, but rather the company is taking the customer’s in making them wait for a response. Essentially, according to the Japanese communications, the customer can do nothing without it simultaneously impacting the company, and consequently, the recognition of patronage is explicit and profuse.

Both the English messages and the Japanese messages are constructed in a way to generate a bond between the company and the customer, but the means employed are poles apart. Bookseller messages in English take the stance: “You’re great and we’re great! Go team, go!” Conversely, the Japanese booksellers assert their interdependence with the customer, to the degree that there are no independent actions on the part of the customer, in a web of mutuality. Such is the versatility of bonding potential, as interactions align according to cultural expectations in fascinatingly divergent ways.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.