This is a version of an article that was originally published on the Teacher Talk blog at azargrammar.com. It has been adapted to make the references more appropriate for Japanese learners. Please feel free to copy it if you would like to use with your students. Click here to download a Japanese translation of the article. If you have any thoughts on the topic, please add a comment.
Many Japanese people feel nervous and excited when they use English to speak to people from other countries. This is natural. People from other countries feel the same way when they try to speak Japanese. Unfortunately, people sometimes say things in a foreign language that they would never say if they were speaking in their own language. This can make them sound rude. There are also some things that would be okay to ask in Japanese that might sound rude if you asked them in English.
Even if what you say is not rude, it may still annoy the other person or make them angry. Remember that a lot of the non-Japanese people in Japan have been here for many years. These people become tired of hearing the same comments and questions over and over again. If you want to communicate effectively in English with people from other countries, it is important to know what you should say to them, but it is just as important to know what you should not say. Here is a list of ten things that you should avoid.
1. Where are you from?
There are a couple of problems with this question. The first is that it is in English. Remember that not all people with white or black faces speak English. Even if they do, they may be annoyed if they come from a non-English speaking country. If you want to talk to someone from another country in English, try speaking to them in Japanese first. (If you speak to them in English, they might think that you just want to practice with them.) If they do not understand you when you speak Japanese, your next question should be, “Do you speak English?” Even if you find out that they do, do not ask them questions about America unless you are sure they are from the U.S. This is very annoying for people who come from other countries.
The second problem with this question is that it shows the first thing you are noticing about the person is that they are different from you. It is therefore not a good way to start a conversation. It is much better to talk about the environment you are both in to establish things you have in common. Some examples might be “It’s hot today, isn’t it!”, “This shop is very crowded!”, or “Have you been waiting long?” After you have been talking for a while, it is okay to ask, “Where are you from?”, but do not try to begin a conversation with this question.
2. “We Japanese…”
Many Japanese people use this expression when they want to say wareware nihonjin, but most non-Japanese feel uncomfortable when they hear it. One reason is that it is strange because it sounds as if you are saying that all Japanese people are the same. For example, it is not true to say, “We Japanese eat rice for breakfast” because many Japanese people do not. Another reason is that it makes the other person feel like an outsider, and it can even sound quite racist. Does “We Japanese” include people of Korean nationality who were born in Japan? How about the native people of Okinawa or Hokkaido? It is better to avoid this phrase altogether when you speak English.
3. Nihongo jozu desu ne!
Some Japanese people may be surprised to hear that non-Japanese do not like to be complimented on their linguistic ability. Actually, some might not mind—it depends on how long they have been in Japan and how good their Japanese actually is. If someone is new to Japan, and if their Japanese is not very good, there will be no problem if you say nihongo jozu desu ne. The person will probably be very pleased. However, if someone has lived in Japan for many years and uses the language as part of their everyday life, hearing this makes them feel uncomfortable because you are treating them as an outsider. If someone really does speak good Japanese, you should just talk to them as you would talk to a Japanese person. That is the best compliment you can give.
4. Do you like natto?
In most English-speaking countries, food is not a topic that you discuss with someone you have just met unless you meet them in a restaurant. Also, when you meet someone for the first time, it is natural to try to find things that you have in common. If you ask someone whether they like a food that even many Japanese people do not like, it might seem as though you are trying to find differences. This is not a very friendly thing to do. You should also know that many, many Japanese people ask foreigners this question. Please try to imagine how tired they are of hearing it.
5. Can you use chopsticks?
Many people who are not from Japan eat Asian food in their home countries, and it is not unusual for people to be able to use chopsticks. In fact, using chopsticks is not particularly difficult, and most people who live in Japan pick it up within a few weeks. When I said that to a Japanese friend of mine, she said, “But my three-year-old daughter has trouble with chopsticks even though she is Japanese.” I said, “Yes, but that is because she is three years old! Please don’t compare me to a baby!” Complimenting someone on their use of chopsticks is a bit like complimenting them on their ability to tie their own shoelaces. It is very patronizing.
6. Comments or questions about a person’s body or age
It is not polite to make comments about people’s bodies, even if you mean it in a good way. Comments like, “Wow, your eyes are so blue!” or “You are so big!” make people feel like zoo animals. You should also avoid asking questions about people’s height or weight, and unless you are talking to a very small child, you should never ask the age of a person that you have just met.
7. Are you married?
Some people will not mind if you ask this question, but others will be very angry, so it is safer not to ask it at all. If you know that someone is not married, you should never ask, “Why aren’t you married?” Asking someone if they have any children is okay, but if they say “No,” never ask “Why not?”
I have a Canadian friend who is married to a Japanese man. People often ask her, “Why did you marry a Japanese man?” This is a strange question. She did not marry “a Japanese man;” she married her husband because she loved him. She gets very angry when Japanese people ask her this question.
8. What is your religion?
Religion is a sensitive subject for many people. You should avoid discussing it with anyone you have just met.
9. When are you going back to your country?
For many foreign people who have lived here for a long time, Japan is their home. Some of them are married, and many have children who were born here. Asking a person this question shows that you think of them as an outsider.
10. Do you like Japanese sushi?
Many Japanese people feel that they have to stress the “Japaneseness” of things when they talk to people from other countries. You do not need to talk about “Japanese sushi,” “Japanese ryokan,” or “Japanese sumo wrestling” because everyone knows that these are Japanese things. Remember also that many things (such as chopsticks and kanji) that you might think of as “Japanese” actually came from other countries.
Other important points to remember:
If you meet someone who clearly speaks Japanese much better than you speak English, do not try to communicate using bad English. This is very rude because it seems as though you are saying, “Your Japanese is not good enough, so I will speak English to you.” It is also not necessary to add simple translations in poor English if the other person obviously understood what you said. (For some reason, older Japanese men often tend to do this.) Unless the person is your teacher, he or she is not being paid to try to practice English with you, so use the language that you can both speak—Japanese.
A final point to remember is that you should always look at a person when they talk to you, even if they are not from Japan. Many non-Japanese find that if they go somewhere with a Japanese person, other Japanese people prefer to look at and talk to that person. This often happens even when the non-Japanese person speaks perfect Japanese. In restaurants, for example, I often find that when I ask a question in Japanese, the waiter or waitress looks at me when I speak, understands what I am saying, and then turns to give the answer to the Japanese person I am with. This is very rude. If the person can speak your language, you should look at them as you speak, even if they are not from Japan.
If you have a teacher (or a friend) who is not from Japan, ask them what they think about these points. Ask them if there is anything else not listed here that annoys them. You might find that your teacher has some very strong opinions on this topic!
PS: I read another article after I wrote this that reminded me of one more thing you should avoid asking people from other countries: “What do you think of Japan?” This is basically just putting pressure on people to say nice things about your country. You would never say, “What do you think of my house?” or “What do you think of my children?”, so why would you say “What do you think of my country?” Japan is a fantastic place, and people will have lots of positive things to say about it without being pressured to do so!