Made in America: Hey, How Are You Doing?
That breezy little greeting still gives me pause. During the fleeting seconds after hearing it, my mind races to come up with an answer. So why do I struggle over this simple conversation starter? The answer reveals much about the difference between American and Japanese communications.
The Japanese equivalent greeting is Genki desu ka, which literally means “Are you feeling well?” And between West and East sits a chasm of how different cultures understand and respect personal space.
English majors may recognize the Japanese greeting takes the form of a closed question, while the American version is an open question. For those who aren’t linguistically inclined, a closed question can be answered with “yes” or “no.”
Unless you feel comfortable saying, “None of your business, thank you,” answering the open question requires sharing additional information. And one more thing to note. Philosophy majors and smart salespeople may also recognize that an open question is the foundation of the Socratic teaching method, as well as a persuasive negotiating technique.
Friends who have known me awhile realize I have a habit of answering questions for them. In other words, I will say something like, “What did you think of that restaurant? Was it any good?” I rarely end my queries with an open question. I just did it without thinking until someone pointed it out to me. Then it was another dozen years before I understood out why.
In Japanese, it can make things rather awkward to start a chat with an open question. You always try to leave the other person a conversational (and personal) escape hatch.
For example, consider a scenario where I run into a friend on the street. The conversation might go something like:
“Hi Megumi. I haven’t seen you in a while. Are you well?”
“Yes I am, thank you.”
“So, where are you headed? The store?”
“No, not today.”
Now comes the dance. If Megumi does not offer any more information, that is my cue to change the subject:
“Wow, it sure has been hot lately, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, it certainly has. Gee, I’m so sorry, but I’m sort of running late.”
“No problem. Nice to see you. Take care.”
“You too. Bye!”
On the other hand, if she answers with something like:
“No, actually I am on my way to see a movie. Would you like to come?”
“Sure, I’m not doing anything right now. Say, I hear Koreeda Hirokazu’s latest film is very good.”
“Oh yes, me too. Why don’t go see that one?”
And we’re good to go.
Friends will also tell you I am as American as baseball and apple pie. And they’re right in many ways. But not all. My parents raised me very traditionally Japanese, especially before I started attending public school in California. And a lot of that training has stayed with me. I consider it an essential part of my identity—my legacy from and my duty to thousands of years of ancestors.
Yes, that’s me you’re listening to…
This social training is also why, when asked an open question I reflexively feel like a cockroach stranded in the middle of the kitchen floor after someone suddenly turns on the light. If you could draw what my brain looks like, it probably resembles some sort of Rube Goldberg machine, churning furiously through complex circuits of extraneous activity.
Even more amusing is that in American conversation, it is impolite to talk about yourself all the time. A gracious way of turning the conversation back to your partner might be, “But enough about me. What are you up to these days?”
Many years ago, my roommate was a gracious, soft-spoken woman from the East Coast. And she used to drive me absolutely crazy. I dreaded breakfast, when she would inevitably strike up a friendly conversation. It was torture.
“So, what are your plans for the day?” she would begin with a smile.
“Oh, uh, I don’t know. Nothing special I guess.”
[It did not help that I am not a morning person and she was an early riser.]
“Oh come now. You are popular, and attractive. Surely you have something going on. Something fun, I’ll bet.”
“Uh, no, really, I haven’t.”
[Oh my god, she’s relentless. Make her stop.]
“How about your friend, Dan? He’s cute.”
“I think he’s busy.”
[Arrgg, I already told you, I DON’T KNOW. Why can’t you just leave me alone? Somebody, HELP!]
At any rate, you get the picture. Go ahead and laugh. I do. Well, I can laugh about it now. And it only took, hmm, 20 years to figure out my problem. And by the way, I still cringe when confronted with the Socratic method. I still have to stop myself from jumping to conclusions when I ask questions. And I still have a bad habit of rattling on about whatever it is I’m doing, especially when I’m excited. If you catch me doing this, watch for minute. Chances are I’ll stop abruptly, take a deep breath, look you in the eye and say, “But hey, what’s new with YOU?”