I Couldn’t Really Tell When a Japanese Person Got Irritated With Me

Language is indeed a mystery.

Photo by Samuli Jokinen on Unsplash

We’re aware of how culture ties in with language. While language isn’t universal, tone and body language usually are.

However, when you’re on the phone, you can’t observe body language so you listen out for the tone of the voice.

I made a phone call to make a reservation at a food sample place in Tokyo for the food sample-making workshop experience. After trying one myself at Yamato Food Sample, I decided to go for another one at a different place.

Food sample parfait from Yamato. Source: Author’s pic

My level of Japanese is still pretty elementary. I could understand the language more than I can speak. I could’ve asked my husband to help me with it but I wanted to try and do this myself. I didn’t want to keep relying on him for these things. Plus, he’s not one who likes to make phone calls and talk on the phone so I thought it would be better for me to handle this one.

The call started out okay. The lady was speaking at a pace where I could understand her when I explained my Japanese wasn’t very good. She seemed quite patient on the phone. At the same time, I could sense worry in her tone, afraid that I didn’t understand her. She asked me how many people were coming twice and I answered her confidently that it was just me.

She proceeded to explain the workflow of the workshop. For people who can’t speak or understand Japanese very well, apparently, we’ll just watch a video and follow the steps and if I had any questions, I would then ask a staff for help.

I checked with my husband who was listening in on the conversation to make sure I had accurately understood what she said. I was a little confused since their website claimed that they have an English-speaking service but have cautioned us that their staff isn’t good at the language.

My husband assured me my guess was right. I was about to continue the conversation with the lady when she kept asking if there was someone else she could talk to or if I had someone else coming with me. I think she caught on that there was someone at home that could speak Japanese.

My husband ended up taking over. Because I was talking to my husband, she apparently thought I was making a reservation for my husband. I can’t understand the thinking process of a Japanese sometimes, how they arrive at their conclusions. Their sense of making observations and conclusions is a little bizarre to me.

I thought it was strange for her to even think that. Why would my Japanese husband make his non-Japanese wife who can’t speak Japanese very well yet make a reservation for him when he could do it himself? It would’ve saved everyone the trouble. Anyway, I digress.

I ended up not making the reservation because I had misunderstood the schedule displayed on their site. They only had one timeslot for the food sample I wanted to make. I thought it started at 11am and went on for the whole day. Another thing I need to adapt to in terms of understanding the Japanese way of putting information on their site.

At lunch, my husband told me that he was annoyed with the lady because she was starting to get irritated with me. I was surprised. I’m usually good at picking up on people’s tones.

I was a little skeptical about it at first since I thought she was doing her best to be patient. My husband agreed but said she was also quickly losing her patience.

I thought that was interesting. I couldn’t hear it in her voice. Even in Japan, I could usually tell when people are starting to get annoyed with my lack of ability in the Japanese language especially over the phone. But not with this lady.

I guess even when I think I’m good at picking up on people’s tone and mood, sometimes language and culture mask certain nuances if I haven’t learnt, heard, or paid attention to them.

When it comes to tone, it is usually universal when people start to get emotional or upset. But I guess there is still more to it when it comes to a different language. Even some people think Singaporeans are being rude when they’re not. Our tone can sound harsh and it takes time for some foreigners to understand Singlish and our culture.

The Japanese language generally sounds polite because of their keigo (honorific speech) and formal speech. It takes little effort to be polite because of the structure of the language. You don’t really need to be genuinely or characteristically polite to sound courteous here. One has to learn to pick up the subtlety of their tone.

And I guess I’m not there yet.

There’s still much to learn.



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