Monday, December 19, 2011


"My, you're looking quite dapper today!"
"Why, thank you!"

I have a habit of complimenting people, no matter where they are from. I've always perceived those little changes, like a new haircut or a new pair of shoes, and responded with approval to blast away self-conscious worries. But in Japan, sometimes I am at a loss. My experience with Japan is that while giving compliments is perfectly fine, accepting them is not.

In my Japanese language class, we studied the proper ways to accept a compliment from a peer or superior. Most of the responses were along the lines of "oh, that's not true," but my favorite and most often used one has to be "no, that kind of thing just isn't so." The Japanese language is built for talking down one's own accomplishments and strengths while praising someone else. It's a deflective mechanism I rarely witness in the United States; usually the recipient of a compliment will say "thank you" and move on.

An anecdote from when I lived with my host family: my host mother came home from the salon with a new hairstyle. My host brother and I were sitting at the table, eating lunch, when she came in. I immediately noticed and complimented her, but my host brother poked me in the ribs and said "Don't do that! Now I'll have to compliment her too!" I found that pretty funny.

Any time I complimented my host mother, whether on purpose or unintentionally, she would make a strange gesture with her hands that resembled churning butter, or perhaps stirring a big pot of soup with two hands. I believe this gesture is akin to calling someone out for "brown-nosing," as I have seen it employed many times by my other (older) Japanese friends.

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