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Polite Fiction

What's a "polite fiction"?

Daily human interaction is based on polite "lies"- culturally sanctioned beliefs in how people should relate to each other. What we think of as "good manners" is based on our culture's ideals about human relations. Whether or not these ideals are true in a given interaction, we usually act on the basis of these "polite fictions." Understanding these basic beliefs can help you to guess what action will be considered courteous in a new situation.

Popular "Polite Fictions" in the U.S.

Here are some beliefs that inform "good manners" in the mainstream United States, with some Asian contrasts to illustrate alternative "polite fictions".

We're all equals.

  • When two people meet, they shake hands or both wave "hi". One says, "How are you?" and the other responds, "Fine, and you?" Since equality is the ideal, it does not matter who starts the conversation even if there is a distinct status difference.
    In contrast, in Thailand, the junior person comes to the senior, puts hands together and bows slightly. The polite fiction is "I'm honoring you" (honoring seniority). Acting as equals would be rude.
  • Equality is demonstrated by eye-to-eye contact.
    In contrast, in Japan, especially when you meet someone for the first time, adults are less likely to look at someone directly unless they are equal or below you in status.
  • Americans, even in conserative environments, demonstrate equality by the use of first names, even in hierarchical settings. The CEO will say ,"Call me Dave." Thus the "I respect authority" fiction is gradually being pushed aside by the "We're all equal and friends" polite fiction. In a gathering of people with different levels of social status, we may make a point of treating everyone evenhandedly.


  • When someone comes to visit you tell them to "make themselves at home" and to "help themselves" to a beer in the fridge, "take off their tie" etc. It is courteous to treat someone with the same casual intimacy you would give a friend or family member.
    In contrast, In many other countries there is a different polite fiction of "I'm being attentive to you." The body posture is alert, you show you are listening closely . As host, your actions towards the other person are solicitious rather than permissive.

You and I are close friends. (or at least: I like you.)

  • Even if you don't like someone or have just met them, polite fiction requires that you act friendly and pleasant as you would towards a friend. Formality is generally associated with coldness, so personal warmth is signaled through informal language and behavior.

You are interesting.

  • Americans use questions to indicate the polite fiction "I am interested in you." To listen quietly with no response would be rude, as would contradicting the speaker's facts or opinions without offering some praise or soft language first.
    In contrast, in Japan, curiosity is less valued. Asking "why" can be considered childish. If an adult asks a question, it is considered to be of great importance, and people make significant efforts to supply an answer.
  • An American tour group bombards a guide with questions.
    In contrast, the Japanese listen appreciately to whatever the guide knows is important to tell them.

What a great idea! -You are original.

  • We compliment others on their "new" ideas and inventions. We may try to say something new or unique that will set us apart and not "bore" the other person with things they know already.
  • Ideas belong to the person who had them, and must be treated with the same respect you would show to the person. A criticism of someone's statement = a criticism of them as a person.

You and I are individuals.

  • Politeness means giving the other person a choice, recognizing their individual preferences. Take coffee, for example. You have a choice of whether you want it or not, whether you want one lump or two, milk or no milk, etc. It would be considered rude if a host just gave you a cup of coffee without asking how you liked it.
    In contrast, in East Asian countries, the highest status person often orders for the whole group. The polite fiction is "We are all part of the same group" and therefore eating the same food, or as humble host: "As honored guest, I give you the best I have to offer even though it isn't very good."

You and I are independent.

  • It is polite to be as self-sufficient as possible, trying not to ask people for help or for emotional support.

We're having fun.

  • Although Americans complain rather freely in public, it is polite to act as if you are enjoying yourself, and to devote yourself to helping the people around you be "happy." Hence the increasingly frequent greeting, "Have a nice day." We assume that everyone is happy or is trying to be.

You and I are very busy people.

  • Your time is valuable; I will take care not to waste it.
  • People display their importance by appearing busier than others. Many people are overworked and overscheduled.
  • To help them uphold their sense of importance, and not to stress someone who is already overloaded, it is polite to be careful of "taking" another person's time. Most polite interactions make some reference to time ("I'll just be a moment." "I know you're busy, butů" "Thank you for your time.")

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