Thursday, February 14, 2013

Will Miss #509 - neighborly behavior

Some qualities of an experience are so subtle and hard to describe that language, no matter how precise, will mislead the reader. I've found this to be the case many times while writing this blog, especially when it comes to titles. Brevity is a virtue, and I think many writers would do well to say less than they do, but it also increases the chance that one will be misunderstood. This topic is one of those in which I am walking a thin tightrope between conveying something that undermines the manner in which Americans are neighborly and overestimates the way in which Japanese are. 

In both Japan and the U.S., I have lived/am living in an apartment complex. That means that people who live in the building will occasionally pass by me. In Japan, with rare exceptions, most people would give a friendly greeting when we walked by or respond in kind when we offered a greeting first. This was in no way an indication of friendship, but a perfunctory act of civility. The fact that people always responded to "ohayo gozaimasu" (good morning) with a similar reply carried a certain feeling of balance and comfort.

In the U.S., my experience has been greatly less uniform in this regard. A handful of people are friendly and reply in kind, but some seem actually irritated or taken aback when I say, "good afternoon" to them. The sense I get is that, though we occupy the same apartment complex, they feel burdened by having to interact with me in a minimal fashion. They would rather we walked past one another with downcast eyes as if we were random strangers passing on a street. The inconsistency of response makes you feel some stress when you greet people, and lowers the chance that you'll do it at all which in turn creates a colder atmosphere in general.

I don't think it's asking too much that people who see each other around the same little patch of land on a regular basis exchange a few words in greeting, and certainly it seemed in Japan for the most part that they subscribed to this belief as well. I miss the way in which social propriety carried a sense of being neighborly. 


  1. I like it when people say hello when I walk down the street. Or even a friendly smile. I tend to get odd glances or silence in response to my smile or hello. Sometimes people to say it back, I think it also depends on where you are. While I was in Tahoe I noticed people wave at you as you drive by which I found to be comforting in the cold weather. Very neighborly feeling.

  2. I live in Georgia, in the US, and people are almost overly friendly. I'm fairly reserved around strangers (though I am civil with a smile and a good morning/afternoon/evening) but I don't like being chatted up whilst in queue or something. I am always polite to a neighbour, however.

  3. I (sometimes still) am completely surprised to hear おはようございます from practically everyone in my apartment complex. It just doesn't happen in the US.

  4. I live in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and I fully understand what you are going through. I also agree with you wholeheartedly that it certainly doesn't take much effort to smile or offer a salutation in a friendly way. I think sometimes the larger the city the more often you notice that people are not as friendly. I think it is very nice that you want to greet people and I hope you continue doing this. Even if people might not respond right away, I am sure, with time, they will. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I think this one depends on where you live in the US. When I lived in small towns in the West and South, everyone would greet each other. Not to do so would have been seen as arrogant/rude. When I spent a half year in Manhattan, people in our apartment building would often---not always---greet each other in elevators or maybe the hallways. Outside the building, forget it.

    In Tokyo, my experience is like yours, people will always say good morning etc. Like NYC though, once folks are 50 feet from the apartment and they are as likely to ignore one another as greet.

    I have heard from folks from Kansai that people are much more likely to strike up a conversation with strangers than they are in Tokyo
    ---and my experience with interacting with people from that area bears this out. Even had a guy a few weeks ago complaining to me about when he goes to Osaka on business, people he doesn't know will chat him up. Oh, the horror!

  6. I agree with the other posters - it does seem to depend on where you are at in the US. I'm from the midwest which is relatively friendly and most people will say hello but I've moved south recently and you definitely say hello here and possibly comment on the latest basketball score on top of that.


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