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Gender differences in Japanese language and the workplace

Lothor

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I found this article very interesting. It argues that the soft and indirect speech that women are expected to use in the workplace makes it more difficult for them to perform their roles as managers. Even as a male, I found trying to speak polite Japanese in the office such a straitjacket that I gave up and ended up speaking English to more senior colleagues if their English was up to it despite having reasonable fluency in Japanese.

 

thomas

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EDIT: sorry, I didn't notice that this article had already been posted. Threads merged. :)

I wasn't sure whether to post this here or to the 日本語 section. This is an interesting piece written by Nobuko Kobayashi, transaction advisory services managing director and partner at Ernst & Young Japan.

In Japanese, men and women eat differently. This is not a comment on table manners but on language: a man would ku-u, with connotations of devouring his food, while a woman may taberu or, even better, itadaku to humbly consume. Similarly, a man would call himself boku or ore, whereas a woman would say watashi. A woman might say ii-wayo for "that's OK," but from a man that would sound extremely feminine. Real men would mutter succinctly ii-yo. This is not just a matter of linguistics: these gender-specific forms, with their different levels of assertiveness and politeness, and the societal expectations behind them, put women at a huge disadvantage against men, in life and particularly in the workplace. [...]

As effective as this demure speaking may seem in the short term, this strategy hurts Japanese women in the long run. First, it simply takes longer to coo "I'm afraid I am not good with numbers. Could they be really correct?" instead of saying, "These numbers are wrong." Second, it forces us to trade-off between being articulate and being demure. While many women hone their skills over time, this is an exhausting exercise. Finally, acting in a "ladylike" manner can take you only so far in business. Without being vulgar, we should be able to shoot straight and not feel sorry about it.

 
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Toritoribe

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A coincidence.:)

 

Majestic

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I was going to comment on this one, but I couldn't quite get it together. In my company, and I think in my industry in general, there is no expectation for women to be demure. There is no expectation for them to feign ignorance of numbers in order to avoid bruising male colleagues' egos. In fact I found this bit in the article to be slightly ridiculous,

"First, it simply takes longer to coo "I'm afraid I am not good with numbers. Could they be really correct?" instead of saying, "These numbers are wrong."

In my workplace, where women make up more than 50% of the workforce, nobody "coos" anything. And, if anybody is wrong about anything, there is no hesitation on the part of my colleagues to say, "you are wrong". And we can do this without the anybody's career getting derailed.

Gender is hard-wired into Japanese. Any of us who deal with translations or translators, inevitably spends a lot of time thinking about this subject. Is there a built-in disadvantage to genderized language? The author makes a case for this, but her case is very different from my daily experience. And I look at Yuriko Koike, and I cannot see her being frightened of speaking directly, and straight-to-the point. But my office, as well as Yuriko Koike, may well be outliers, and not the lived experience of the majority of women. Still, I can't help but feel that if KPMG has an unspoken expectation for women to act demurely, I think the problem lies with KPMG management, rather than the language.
 
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Lothor

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What line of business are you in Majestic?
 

bentenmusume

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I tend to agree with Majestic on this. Whereas there may be more examples of explicitly gendered language in Japanese, the idea that women are discouraged from asserting themselves or expressing their opinions is almost certainly more cultural than it is linguistic.

Even in English-speaking countries, there have been countless studies showing how women are perceived negatively for being assertive in the workplace (they might be seen as "bossy", where a man in a similar position is seen as "take-charge").


This would suggest to me that these issues run far deeper than the language itself.

I have some issues with the language analysis provided in the OP article as well. The feminine sentence-final wa is growing increasingly rare, and nobody would bat an eyelash if a woman said ii yo instead of ii wa yo (in fact, the latter might even sound like a slightly old-fashioned affectation). As far as first-person pronouns go, watashi is the default for both men and women in formal speech. Being deferential and self-deprecating ("I'm afraid I'm not so good with numbers...") is something that both men and women would be expected to do in certain situations (e.g. when talking to a client or superior) and shouldn't be in others. If a female boss is expected to defer to her male subordinate rather than pointing out that he made a mistake, that's an office culture problem, not a language issue.

Lothor said:
Even as a male, I found trying to speak polite Japanese in the office such a straitjacket that I gave up and ended up speaking English to more senior colleagues if their English was up to it despite having reasonable fluency in Japanese.
With all due respect, I'd argue this is primarily a perception/attitude issue, or simply a case of you feeling more comfortable asserting yourself in your native language rather than a second language. I'm not saying Japanese and English are entirely equivalent, of course, but I think it's going a bit far to suggest that the mere presence of keigo prevents one from firmly stating your opinions.

(I realize that there are even many native Japanese speakers who say they feel more "comfortable" being assertive in English, but again, I think this is almost entirely perception and attitude. They have it in their mindset that there's no such thing as polite language in English and that English speakers are more "direct", so they are able to mentally free themselves from all the cultural baggage that exists in their native language/culture and just speak bluntly.)
 

Majestic

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I am in IT / Entertainment. The women in our office would laugh at the idea that they had to be demure in order to get the approval of their male peers. They would laugh at the idea of "male approval" as something that needed to be pursued in the first place - other than in the sense of the communally-shared value of office harmony. But office harmony isn't subject to everyone using strictly gendered speech. As long as civility and politeness is observed, we manage to get along even without all the women using hyper-feminine speech inflections.

This article is now making the rounds on Twitter, and getting a bit of traction in a certain section of "woke" twitter. It is filled with replies of non-native Japanese speakers who nod in agreement. Many of the comments make the mistake of assuming that blunt speech is only available in male speech patterns, and this is converging with their preconception that the language perpetuates an outdated patriarchy.

Being blunt is not a universal virtue, even in the west. If all you have to offer your employer is your bluntness, you will quickly gain the reputation of being a difficult employee. Even if you are a brilliant thinker, the ability to articulate your thoughts in a way that inspires others, as opposed to just being the monosyllabic bull in the china shop, is a prized skill. Being blunt when appropriate is a technique that is available in Japan, just as it is in the west, and it is not only available in male speech. But being blunt as a form of performance, or as a performative aspect of your identity, just makes you toxic. In any language.

Then there are a number of comments from women who comment how they were once scolded or cautioned because their spoken Japanese sounded like male speech, and the twitter thread becomes an echo-chamber of foreign Japanese speakers who somehow feel the language unfairly cruelled them with its built-in sexist bias.

Sexism in the workplace, or in relationships is real, and we shouldn't try to diminish it, but I felt the article made a weak linguistic case for this, and the message got co-opted (on twitter) by foreigners who resented any language difference in the first place.
 
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