A Surprising Difference Between Japanese and U.S. Hospitality, and What It Says About Boundaries

The pleasant art of saying no in Japanese

When we think about establishing boundaries, we often think of it as something curt, maybe a bit rude, but that we should be unapologetic about it anyways. Yet while I often agree with this sentiment, there is something about the pleasant art of saying no in Japanese.

The major difference between Japanese and American customer service

The sentiment of “the customer is always right” and “everything is negotiable” is prevalent throughout American consumer culture — in food, in lodging, in transportation, and in retail, most Americans approach customer service with the expectation that some negotiating and flexibility in rules can be applied.

But unlike American customer service, Japanese customer service is actually quite stringent with its rules and regulations — you’ll hear ‘no’ quite often. But no one ever really gets that upset about it (I would argue that there aren’t as many demanding adult “Karens” or “Kens” in Japan) — why is that so?

Perhaps you’ve asked the waiter to slightly change a menu item, or you asked the retail associate if you could return a sweater where the tag was already cut off. While in the United States you might expect a chance to be accommodated, in Japan you would more likely than not find yourself with a very long response:

“I’m so incredibly sorry to inconvenience you, but it is with deep regret that I inform you that due to our limited resources we are not going to be able to accommodate your request.”

This sort of behavior can be a running joke with family and friends on Japanese standards of “too politeness”. Yet because of how Japanese hospitality is often delivered — the politeness, the formality, the kindness, the almost overly considerate mannerisms — even if it’s not as flexible as American customer service, it’s so gentle in its treatment of the asker, customers hardly get too bothered.

You don’t need to use strong language to have strong boundaries

Boundaries are seldom personal: We don’t make ourselves available after work hours because we want to prioritize spending time with our family, not because we don’t respect our work. We don’t want to hang out because we’re emotionally exhausted, not because we are upset at someone.

Boundaries in the end serve both parties, and are important for peace among crowds, so it’s unfortunate when they are taken personally, but Japanese hospitality has shown me that amicable boundaries are possible when we are attentive to:

  1. Making the sentiment clear
  2. Making the rejection impersonal
  3. Making the no clear

Because despite its strictness in rules, it would be hard to argue that Japanese hospitality isn’t exceptional. I love the politeness, the kind demeanor, and formal treatment I receive even when I’m just visiting the local corner convenience store. Even when I’m told no, I rarely feel upset.

It’s about being firm in your decision, while reassuring the good nature of the relationship.

I love an English no, but sometimes a Japanese one can make things easier

I do enjoy the brevity and straightforwardness of an English no — it makes me feel empowered, in control, and unapologetic in its use. But when we want to communicate understanding, empathy, and amiability for one another, sometimes a Japanese no can be much more powerful.

For setting positive and peaceful boundaries is not always easy, especially when it comes to something intimate or sensitive with our loved ones — but we have a right to say no, and should not have to feel guilt or inflict hurt when we do so. For sometimes, all it takes to come to peace with boundaries is clear communication, understanding, and compassion for one another.

It’s where humanity thrives best.

Born in Dallas, raised in New York and Tokyo. I care about helping others learn to live a better, healthier life. My site: www.kakikata.space 🌱

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