Saturday, February 6, 2010

Avoiding the Argument

As an English teacher in Japan, I hear about a lot of things that sound odd to Western ears. Most of them I've become used to, but I still get a new one now and then. A few weeks ago, a student told me that his wife gets angry when he puts salt on his food, which surprised me greatly. Apparently, the reason is that she feels that salting is an indication that the food is unsatisfactory, and therefore an insult to her. I found this ridiculous; I'd have thought that everyone separates how well something is cooked from one's taste in saltiness. Excessive salt is a problem; insufficient salt clearly is not. It's elementary. Did many Japanese feel like this?

Determined to find out, I conducted one of my (extremely scientifically invalid) surveys, asking fifty students the same question and getting their answers. Here is the explanation I gave, and the questions:

There is a (Japanese) couple in their mid-thirties, no kids, both work. He works more than she does; part of their division of labor is that she cooks. When she serves him food and he salts it, she gets angry. She says it means he thinks her cooking is poor; he says it's just that his taste is different from hers. She does not accept this explanation.

1. Is her attitude reasonable?

2. Should he stop using salt?

3. Sometimes she puts the food on the table and heads back to the kitchen to get something. He quickly grabs the salt, salts his food, and puts it back before she returns. Is it okay for him to do this?

From my point of view, these are easy questions: her attitude is highly unreasonable, he shouldn't stop, and he shouldn't sneak the salt, but rather, use it openly. I suspect that most Westerners would agree. I got, however, some unexpected responses from my Japanese students.

I wanted to ask students about this at first mainly to find out how many people agreed with her, but the more significant responses came out with the second question. Here are the results:


Yes: 7 (4 female, 3 male)
Somewhat: 3 (3 female, 0 male)
No: 40 (23 female, 17 male)

Should he stop?

Yes: 23 (9 female, 14 male)
No: 27 (21 female, 6 male)

Is sneaking the salt okay?

Yes: 28 (no gender breakdown)
No: 22

While it seems that being angry at salt use isn't that common, it does exist; the wife's attitude was vigorously defended by a few of those who answered 'yes'. They felt that the kitchen is the woman's domain, and her decrees should be followed. One lady insisted that even if his taste is different, he should try to adjust it; he would eventually get used to the lack of salt, and enjoy the food just as much. Asked why he should have to, she gave a few reasons, such as the idea that it would show respect for her efforts in the kitchen. One response I got a lot, especially from women, to the 'is she reasonable' question was, "no, she isn't reasonable, but I can understand her feelings."

What surprised me about the second question was not the results, but the gender breakdown, which as you can see is sharp. 70% of women said he should go ahead and continue, while 70% of men said he should stop. Of the 23 women who said the wife was unreasonable, 21 said he should continue using the salt, which makes sense to me: you follow reasonable requests, and you don't follow unreasonable ones. But of the 17 men who said the wife was unreasonable, only 6 said he should continue using salt. In almost every case, the reason given was to avoid a conflict. Very typical was a man around 50 who immediately dismissed the wife as unreasonable, said the husband should stop using the salt 'to keep the peace in the family,' and when questioned about sneaking the salt, laughed and said 'good idea!'.

By Western standards, giving in to such an unreasonable request would be widely considered a bad idea. It's bad in principle to agree to unreasonable demands, it represents an unhealthy degree of control by one partner over another, and it only puts a Band-Aid over a problem that needs to be dealt with. A discussion needs to be had. But Japanese are very conflict-averse, almost reflexively so. Not that they never have it, of course, especially between spouses. But though not everything needs to be a knock-down drag-out fight, many Japanese react as though any argument means just that. Some of the men didn't care that much about using salt, so would give in quickly. But in my case, even if I were indifferent to using salt, I would resist the demand on principle and initiate a discussion. What I found about many Japanese–not all, but probably upwards of half–was that they simply don't consider the notion that the problem can be solved with a discussion. They would argue their point, they would maybe get angry, but it wouldn't occur to them to explore the dynamic of the situation in order to solve it. Why does she get angry, when most people wouldn't? Is she sensitive about her cooking? Has he given her reason to be? Has he appreciated it enough, perhaps made a few unintentional slights? They wouldn't ask these questions. When I say 'discussion', what they hear is 'argument'.

But, most interestingly: why the men and not the women? Even the students weren't sure, though there was a general consensus that the most recent generation of Japanese men aren't as confident and sure of their place as men of previous generations. Tellingly, one of the few men who said he should continue using the salt was my oldest student, a 75-year-old man who was a company executive, a very traditional guy. He said the wife should make the food to the husband's specifications, and if it isn't, he should use the salt and tell her why. He's not an arrogant guy; he just has a strong idea of how things should be. Anyway, for whatever reason, Japanese women appear to be much more willing than men to have an argument. Most of my students were interested, but not terribly surprised, by this.

As for the third question, the student whose problem this was (who was quite interested to have me take the survey and give him the results) said he was surprised at the result, that he'd have thought that 90% would say it was okay. Most who said it was liked it as a way to avoid the argument/discussion, and for him to get what he wanted (most of the men gave this answer). Most who opposed it said that he should simply use it openly, so in a way, it was another way of asking the second question.

As for my student, he hasn't used the salt recently, contenting himself to sneak it in when possible. When I asked him why he didn't bring it up with her, he quoted a Japanese expression, 'kotonakare-shugi'. It doesn't seem to have an exact English equivalent; it comes across best as 'leaving well enough alone' or 'not making things worse'. Personally, I think that it's not dealing with these things that makes them worse. But, of course, that's what cultural differences are all about.

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