Teaching In Socks

Smiles are free

Usually when you find a video about Japan on an English speaking website it’s either about robots, or something intensely bizarre–like a game show for cartoon rabbits. This, year I have seen everything from robot chairs, to rocket chairs, to a cat who had been designated the Honorary Station Master  of a train station in Northern Japan.

I found the above video on the AP web channel and I liked it because while it was remotely insane, the story also presented two interesting social dynamics I have noticed during my time here.

The first and more obvious point of cultural significance documented is the immense value workers in the Japanese service industry put on giving good service, and the effort they put in to achieving that goal (as long as you don’t try to order off the menu). I can’t say I’m a person who even really appreciates good service. In retail situations I try to avoid the sales person for fear of being pressured into buying  leather pants or disappointing them when I don’t buy the leather pants they recommend.

Still, the disparity in the level of service you receive in Japan, versus an average American experience is not only blaring obvious, but also it is often delivered in a way that isn’t overwhelming or distracting. For example,  when I walk into the convenience store I am greeted every time, and thanked every time.  This is a basic and decent amount of human interaction–especially if you want people to pay you money for things–and even brings a certain amount of honor to transaction.In the larger shops they even go as far as to walk you out of the store and thank you profusely.

There’s also the practical side of service; across the board the package you items carefully and efficiently, and when it’s raining they often wrap your bag with a rain cover.

Of course, there is the dark overkill said to service, but not having purchased a car or a home (or really any item large enough to inspire desperation in a salesperson) I find that this brand of sales tactic seems to be confined to the young womens section of the department store.  I can only process these pop-driven, Girl fortresses as a series of blurry, glittering lights and the shrill sounds of intermittent high-pitched giggling between the sound a credit card swipes. Maybe the overkill approach appeals to this specific “tween” consumer, I don’t know and I am sure I wouldn’t know what it looked it. (full disclosure: I am a card carrying member of G.R.O.S.S, since 1988).

That niche market aside, I the level of service in America is more than a few god-awful training videos away from reaching the level of mastery where they work on refining their smile in a machine every morning. Let’s be honest though, refining your smile in a smile-measuring computer  is entirely absurd; it’s like three stages away from Total Recall technology.

However, while the usefulness of this machine is debatable, the greater significance–for me–is the role of this machine in the culture of statistical feedback. As I have mentioned, Japanese people have an emphatic and remarkable work ethic, and this ethic is fueled by setting goals, and receiving feedback to help them set goals to achieve. While I have yet to determine the root of this characteristic, Japan as a whole seems to value quantitative information and feedback higher than the basic qualitative advice. I can understand this to some degree because numbers are an easy way to explain and measure things. If you boss says you are doing the job at 80% then you know where you stand, and how much (but perhaps not what) more you need to do.  However, this can be taken to a fault; it can be applied in places where numbers don’t really work as a great system of measurement or offer insightful way to improve.

Recently in my science class we focused our emphasis on pronunciation. While it’s been a big help to some of the lower-level and beginning students, the head of the class introduced an exercise where the students repeat back to me the word we have just practiced and I give them a pronunciation grade. He asked me to give them a instant percentage grade on each attempt. However, this is class with many beginners; it became instantly clear to me that throwing out numbers could be rather demoralizing for some students who struggle with basic sounds–especially when we are practicing  words ranging from “light” to “tuyere” to “thermodynamics”.

Also, my mind does not work in a way that it can break down individual word pronunciation statistically. I can’t quickly  divide words by syllables or letters and then score which of those has been done perfectly, Furthermore, I don’t think that numbers serve or helpful method of measurement for aurual sounds. If I say it was an 80%, how does it teach the student to get a 100%? How is that even better than me just repeating the part of the word they have difficulty with and giving no score at all?

Having had my own troubles with pronouncing words in the past, I have come to the belief that grading pronunciation is better served by a system with the metrics of, “pass”, “fail”  and “close enough that your friends or colleagues won’t mock you”.

Accordingly, I adjusted my feedback to four responses with that hope that this system was helpful, yet also encouraging. I settled on: “perfect”, “very good”, “pretty good” and then one–in the event that they get stuck or completely mispronounced the word–where I grimaced a little and repeated the word. If they get below “very good” I always repeat the word and emphasize the problem area until they are able to get it correct.

Of course, while my plan seemed like a great idea, it was just another example of me blowing against the wind. At first the students seemed to like my new metrics. They would sort of act cocky and brag if they got a “perfect”. Within the second or third go around of the new scale, the head of the class turned to me and asked, “‘perfect’ is 100%?” “‘pretty good’ 80%? 90%” “‘very good’ is 75%? 60%? which?”. As soon as I compromised and answered those questions he began following up my student assessments by yelling out the corresponding percentage points every time.

Add this to the list of those great “oh yeah, I am in Japan moments”. I’ve learned all you can do in those situations is reach into your motherboard, adjust the dial, and turn your smile up to 110% (“super-perfect”).

That’s right, we smile at 11 over here.


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