Abiding Traditions

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The winner of the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition

The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers was held recently, an event that has been going on for over 50 years but has recently surged in popularity, according to an article in the NY Times. The competition aims to find the best phone answerer in terms of politeness, voice (a high pitch is preferable), and efficiency in providing the information sought. Almost all the competitors are women.  According to the article:

Organizers of the event, which now draws over twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners…Formal phone answering is serious business in Japan, with many rules intended to head off offensive or awkward moments. A search on Amazon’s Japanese website found more than 60 books specifically on phone manners, and dozens more on business etiquette in general. Most appeared to be aimed at women, like “How to Talk Like a Workplace Beauty.”

The competition highlights the role of politeness in Japanese society, but also the position of women in the workplace.  Despite a 1986 gender equality law, women hold just 11 percent of managerial jobs in Japan.

Meanwhile, in England, folks are glued to the radio to hear the shipping forecast from the BBC, even if they live nowhere near the coast, or have no relationship to ships. It’s a tradition that points to a core value of English culture derived from being an island nation, an abiding concern for maritime weather — or, for that matter, just the weather.

NPR had a series of broadcasts this week featuring the shipping forecast and highlighting coastal communities.  Also discussed was the cultural significance of the shipping forecast.

It is a bizarre nightly ritual that is deeply embedded in the British way of life. You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice. “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ….” says the voice. You are aware — vaguely — that these delicious words are names, and that those names refer to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa. Your mind begins to swoop across the landscape, sleepily checking the shorelines, from the gray waters of the English Channel to the steely turbulence of the Atlantic. Somewhere, deep in your memory, stir echoes of British history — of invasions from across the sea by Vikings, Romans and Normans; of battles with Napoleon’s galleons and Hitler’s U-boats.

Japan and Britain share not only a respect for traditions (many more than the ones listed here), but also the reputation for politeness, perhaps inherent in island nations with relatively dense populations. In a fast changing world, it’s comforting to know that some things stay the same. It’s great too to have cultures like these that have traditions that seem unaffected by the tides of globalization and successfully resist the tendency towards homogenization.


Selfie Society?

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

Helle Thorning-Schmidt takes a selfie

The word of the year for 2013:  selfie, according to Oxford Dictionaries, as well as linguist Geoff Nunberg, speaking today on NPR. Selfie (i.e., self-portrait) describes a picture taken of oneself with a phone camera. The word has been in the news recently in connection with the picture Danish prime minister took of herself together with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron.  The picture excited comment due to the fact that it was taken during the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela, maybe also for the disapproving expression from Michele Obama. The term — and the practice it describes — have been seen as symptomatic of what ails modern society, from the cutesification of English to an obsession with sharing everything one does. It does seem to point to something that a wildly popular mobile app such as Snapchat can exist principally to enable sharing of selfies. A columnist in the New York Post pointed to the narcissism inherent in the practice and commented that the picture taken by the Danish prime minister “symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline.”  It’s not just in the U.S. that such concerns have been raised, as evident in the Telegraph’s (U.K.) article, Family albums fade as the young put only themselves in picture.

On NPR today there was another story that struck me in terms of language use.  It was in a story describing the high cost of housing in the San Francisco Bay area.  The reporter struggled to find a way to describe the housing arrangement of a group of unrelated young people living together in a large house.  He suggested the term “commune” but it was rejected as too heavily burdened with free love associations from the 1960’s.  The inhabitants of the house use the term “co-living” to describe their arrangement.  I found the difficulty finding a term interesting because of how easily and conventionally such arrangements are described in German-speaking countries: Wohngemeinschaft (living community), often shortened to WG.  This is not only a word widely used, but so too is the practice of doing what NPR thought was newsworthy in the Bay area, unrelated young people living together. Americans tend to think of houses as single family dwellings, which is far from how they are viewed in most of the rest of the world.

Lessons in Kindness and Forgiving

Nelson Mandel's symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Nelson Mandel’s symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Just in time for the Christmas season, a couple of stories in the news point to instances of personal conduct unusual in our day, offering a refreshing antidote to the culture of self-promotion and crudeness discussed in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal essay, “America the Vulgar“.

The incredible life of Nelson Mandela is a personification of the power of forgiveness, in his case resulting in the prevention of mass violence and freeing an oppressed people, ultimately creating a democratic state.  It wasn’t a small case of forgiveness.  The 27 years in prison robbed him of his prime and robbed him of his family. His son died tragically when he was in prison and he was not permitted to attend his funeral. He was allowed one letter every six months. He was often put in solitary confinement. Many Black South Africans wanted retribution against their long-time oppressors. Mandela forgave and initiated a process of reconciliation.

Seven years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish elementary school, tied up 10 little girls, then opened fire, killing five in cold blood and injuring the others, then shot himself. The Amish community responded by offering immediate forgiveness, later attended the killer’s funeral, and befriended his family.  Now the killer’s mother spends time every week with a now 13-year victim of the shooting who as a result of the shooting is confined to a wheelchair and is fed through a tube.

Today in the news, one year after the Sandy Hook shooting, one of the parents of a slain child was asked what outsiders who wanted to help could do; her answer – perform “an act of kindness” in your community.