Social Conventions and Surprises from the English Heart of Tradition

Social conventions, which we learn as little children, have no surprises for us. In fact, they fade away to the fringe of consciousness, because we do not have to think about them consciously.
For instance, Japanese people and British people say Thank You’ a great deal; Americans say it less, and Spaniards do not like to say it at all. It is not that Spanish people are ungrateful. But they do not like to say Thank You’, because a man who is saying Thank You’ is acknowledging that he is in an inferior position. Spanish people do not like an inferior position; they are very sensitive about what they call their Honour.
But British and Japanese people do not feel inferior when we say Thank You.’ We think it is simply politeness. In fact, we do it so often that it is almost meaningless; we say it unconsciously. As it is unconscious, it is not really polite, but just the form
of politeness.

Foreigners, when they first see the Japanese bow, think that the Japanese are tremendously polite people. But really the politeness is often only in the action, and not in the heart. Sometimes a particularly deep bow is sarcastic.
In a judo practice, when one man happens to misjudge the distance for his osotogari, and so merely kicks his opponent on the leg, he automatically jerks out, ‘Shikkei. He never thinks about it, and neither does his opponent; it is just part of the judo practice.
Only if this politeness is exaggerated does one notice it. One of the roughest judo practices which I have ever had in the Kodokan was with a Japanese medical student, a strong Fourth dan.
Now medical students in most countries have the reputation of being rather rough; for instance in Britain, the roughest Rugby is played by medical students. There is a saying that perhaps they want to create injuries so that they can practise their medical skill next day. I remember a senryu which goes:

The doctor’s apprentice
Is always hoping
That someone will get hurt.

Well, I knew the reputation of medical students in Britain, and so I expected that this medical student in Japan would be rough. And he was rough. He did not commit any actual fouls, but still he seemed to be all elbows and knees. I certainly did not expect any polite phrases from him, because it was rather like a fight. But I was quite wrong in my anticipation. The first time I threw him, he jumped quickly up, and I expected him to attack me at once. To my amazement, he stood perfectly straight, and then made a formal standing bow, at the same time saying: “Thank you very much” (domo arigato gozaimashita). I felt bewildered. Suddenly our furious practice had become an occasion for formal politeness. As I stood wondering what I ought to say, he jumped at me, and again we were fighting hammer-and-tongs. There was no formality now; again it was very wild judo.
After about a minute, he threw me. As I jumped up to continue, he again drew himself up quite straight, and made his formal bow as before, but this time saying; “Please excuse me” (shitsurei itashimashita). This time I was a bit less surprised, and in fact I soon got used to his polite phrases. There were only two of them: ‘Thank You Very Much’, and ‘Please Excuse Me’. But that is enough for judo, where only two things can happen: to throw or to be thrown.

I later found that the teacher in that medical college dojo insisted that they should all use these same words. Perhaps he felt it was the best way to get some check on the normal medical student’s wildness. I have always been amazed how quickly the boisterous medical students in Britain become suave, gentle and tactful doctors, and one sees the same phenomenon in Japan. Maybe the bowing is part of the process there. I do not know just how the transformation is brought about in Britain: I have seen a number of medical students who finish their qualifications, but still look typical students. Then is suddenly they appear in a new suit, with the tie carefully tied and centred. Their manner of speaking becomes quiet, and—like a conjuring trick, Hey Presto!—they are doctors, calm, priest-like, and confident.
This too is a convention. It is a pleasant one, and doubtless a necessary one also. Patients might not have much confidence in a doctor who was too outspoken and blunt, without any of the social graces. We know that confidence in the doctor is as important as the actual medicines which he prescribes.
Well, the conventions of politeness in society can help to make that society run in a well-oiled way. Most British people say ‘Please’ when they ask for a ticket at a railway station, and ‘Thank You’ when they receive it. Japanese do not do this, and many Americans are surprised at it. When one thinks of conventions, it is generally conventions of politeness that spring to mind: the British ‘Thank You’ habit, and the Japanese bowing habit.

But there are other conventions, in other countries, which are the very reverse. There is conventional rudeness in some cultures, and it is very important to know about it if we go to foreign countries on business, or even on holiday. As a matter of fact, anyone who is interested in international affairs, though only through reading the newspapers, must learn to recognize conventional rudeness when he hears about it.

Like conventional politeness, conventional rudeness is very impressive and surprising when first met; afterwards, when some well-informed person explains that it is merely a convention, it can be ignored. But if we have not had some such explanation, we can become very upset for a long time.
Let us take an example. In Egypt, if two men have a quarrel about some piece of property, it is not unusual for one of them to bring up all kinds of accusations which have nothing to do with the property. He might say, “And it is well known that you are a very bad father to your children”, or “And you are known to take bribes”. The opponent might retort by saying, “You are often seen drunk in public”. These insults are not taken seriously. When the dispute over the property has been settled, they are all  forgotten: they were just conventional rudeness.

I first encountered this conventional rudeness when living in Egypt. At the time the Egyptian Government had a dispute with the British Government. It was duly reported in the English-language Egyptian newspaper. To my amazement, however, the paper did not merely say that there was this dispute but that the British Government was completely wrong. The paper went on to suggest that the British Government had for some time been engaged in a sort of slave- trading operation in another part of Africa, and also conniving at drug smuggling in still another part. I said to a friend, an old resident in Egypt: “How can they say such things? They bring forward no evidence at all, and it is quite impossible.” He laughed as he replied: “Why, none of the readers will take this seriously. When there is a quarrel, it is quite a normal thing to insult the other party in many different ways, inventing stories about him. The readers all do this themselves in their own lives. After the present dispute with Britain is over, none of this will be mentioned. It has no meaning at all.” He was quite right; that is what happened.

It is worthwhile to know this. In the future, Japan will sometimes be involved in disputes and arguments with various countries. Japan must be prepared for this conventional rudeness. To be insulted in many ridiculous ways by the newspapers in such countries is not pleasant, but it has to be lived through. If Japanese can recognize that this is simply a convention, they will not be distressed or angered by it. Of course, genuine arguments about the actual dispute must be listened to carefully, and if the other country has some right on its side, then a compromise has to be made. But what I have been calling conventional rudeness has nothing to do with the actual cause of disagreement; its essence is irrelevance. It is all nothing—like small boys shouting Yah! at each other in a street quarrel. Next day it is all forgotten.

There is a good deal of difference among countries on the degree of conventional rudeness which is allowable in public quarrels. To know something about this is an important part of international general knowledge. Let us take parallel cases in Britain and in France. At the end of 1985 and the beginning of 1986, a big dispute developed between two Ministers in the British Government: the Minister of Defence Mr. Michael Heseltine and the Minister for Trade and Industry Mr. Leon Brittan. In the end, both of them resigned. The Minister of Defence resigned because his policy was not followed by the other members of the cabinet, and the Minister for Trade and Industry resigned because (as he admitted) he had not been completely frank in his statements to Parliament. He had not told a lie, but he had not is revealed all the facts. During the course of the dispute, a great number of reported speeches by politicians, and articles analysing the Ministers’ motives, appeared in the media. But they were all directly concerned with the competence and honesty  of the Ministers and their associates. None of them discussed the private lives of the Ministers.

Some years before, there was a comparable quarrel between two prominent public figures in France (I do not want to give the names). The dispute between them was a genuine difference of opinion, and it was argued skilfully by both sides. But then one of them came out with an extraordinarily spiteful comment on his opponent. He claimed that he knew his son, and that the son had told him something about his father’s sexual inadequacies.
The French newspapers and magazines reported this venomous remark, though sometimes adding that it was in ‘bad taste’. What hypocrisy! A foreigner may well ask: “If it is in bad taste, why report it?” “Ah”, replies the French press, “but our readers expect us to report the news, and this is news”. Well, one can say that few British papers would report this sort of story.

If Japan is involved in a dispute with France, the Japanese may expect to receive some barbed criticism. The French, one of the most cultured people in the world, occasionally forget their poise when there is a political argument. The British say sarcastically: “Their culture slips a bit”, as if it were just a mask.
The French can be sarcastic too, and sometimes more witty than the British. For example, the French find the British rather rigid in applying rules to human beings; the British do not like to make exceptions (say the French) even when it causes human suffering. Writing about this point, the famous French writer Montherlant remarked: “Animals have so many friends in Britain that it is not surprising that human beings have so few.” When I read this, I could not help laughing. Treatment of animals has nothing to do with the treatment of human beings, which is what Montherlant was writing about, but I recognized the conventional rudeness. It is no more than the Yah! of the small boys in the  street.

But I admit that the French Yah! is sometimes more witty than the plain English Yah! Montherlant’s remark made me laugh, even while I was mentally throwing it into the dustbin in my mind labelled NONSENSE.

© Trevor Leggett 1987

Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic

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