Listening In

Saturday, October 06, 2007

If I were one of the Seven Dwarfs, I'd be Grumpy

6th October 2007

Warning: The following may upset you.

Though if you have to handle queries in any shape or form, it may strike a painfully resonant chord instead.

I’m always delighted to get a message from a reader and sometimes when I open the e-mail, the delight becomes pure happiness. But there are also times when I am…perturbed.

Here’s a composite of those messages: “hi, will be going to osaka for hols next month and want to stay in an inn in kyoto. please give detailed instructions on how to get to kyoto from osaka, how to book ryokan room and idea of how much it costs. what should i eat? see? buy?

“also keen on stdying in japan as am intrestd in the japs. can give me names of some schools? tks”

Certain thoughts come to mind: Does the writer have a religious objection to capital letters? Is he afraid of spelling words out in full? Of complete sentences? And did somebody break the Internet while I wasn’t looking?

Even setting aside the issue of calling the Japanese “japs”, messages like that disturb me on a number of levels.

I love e-mail but I sometimes wonder if it’s made things a bit too easy. If you have to look for paper, write or type on it, then find an envelope, stamp and postbox, chances are, you’d take more care with what actually went into the letter because it’d be a waste of the trouble otherwise.

When you use something that needs as little time and effort as e-mail, the temptation is to write without taking either.

But the result is like a stranger walking into your home dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and wearing slippers he doesn’t remove. He then puts his slippered feet up on your coffee table and demands a drink.

He may really be dehydrated but he’s not thinking of anything other than his thirst.

Living in Japan can be a constant education in how your actions affect others. A few months ago, I signed up for a class meant to introduce students to business Japanese.

But we found ourselves studying more than language. We learned the protocol involved in sitting in a room or car, the right time to call another company (not 9am as many businesses start the day with a short meeting) and the “respectful” way to seal an envelope (with glue rather than tape, which looks unsightly).

Some may say that this hyper-sensitivity to what others think of your actions is the result of a group culture gone overboard. They may point out that the care taken comes not from genuine consideration but a fear of ostracism.

While this seems to be true in some cases, it’s still worth thinking about exactly what you are doing when you approach another person – and the possible responses.

For this reason, I’ve debated for months whether or not to tackle this subject because I know it will upset some of those who have written to me.

“Geez,” they may say, “It was just an e-mail.”

Was it?

There’s another issue here quite apart from the writing style: The ease with which some people will ask a stranger for information readily available elsewhere.

Almost everything I found out about Japan before moving to Kyoto, I learned by using nothing more complicated than books, television and the Internet.

If you really don’t know where to start, try Kinokuniya. Those on a tight budget can do what I did: Look in the bookshop for something helpful then check if the public library carries the title.

As for information on studying in Japan – I got that from the Internet, not the secret files of the CIA.

But why am I so reluctant to share this information with strangers? First, the many, many things staring at me as they wait to be done.

Secondly, to make a recommendation is to take responsibility for the experience another person will have. I prefer to do it only for people I know or if what I’m recommending looks like a sure-fire winner. Not a lot of things fall into this category.

There’s another reason: The knowledge that by answering those kinds of e-mail, I’m compounding an unhelpful habit.

Every time we want to know something, we slide into our own pattern of asking questions and finding answers. We form this habit as children, taking it unconsciously into adulthood.

If not for this column, I might not have thought so hard about how I move from Q to A. I see now that while I enjoyed school on the whole, it was an environment where questions were seldom voiced.

I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing; I just got into the habit of finding my own answers. This meant reading, watching and listening – and thinking about what I’d read, seen and heard.

I might not have got the best answer but I usually came up with something.

Sometimes I’d get lazy and bother my friends before doing anything on my own. In return, I’d try to help if one of them came to me with a question.

But here’s the thing: I am not a friend to most of the people reading this column. I am also not a travel agent or education consultant. And I most certainly am not Google. For a start, I’m a lot shorter.

It’s cold comfort to know that journalists and other columnists also find themselves in my position. And reading the FAQ section of authors’ websites, it’s hard not to see a hint of exasperation at times.

Even British writer Neil Gaiman, reckoned to be one of the nicest human beings on the planet (and not just by his fans), felt the need to put this on his website: “Please don’t try to use the FAQ submission area for help with your homework… I won’t do your homework for you. Just pretend I’m a dead author and in no position to answer your questions”.

And, anyway, the answer’s probably somewhere on the site, he adds – just search for it.

If you believe that it’s good to have questions, then don’t be in such a hurry to give them to someone else.

There’s a university lecture I still think about years after I attended it. It’s not the content I remember but what the professor said as she gave out stacks of notes.

Students, she remarked, had come to expect such photocopies as a right. But it was interesting, she said, that this kind of information had the same name as the things given as charity: handouts.

There’s a difference between help and charity – when you ask for something, which are you asking for?

One e-mail I received didn’t ask for either. It was from a reader who just wanted to say that, like me, he’d quit a good job to pursue his interests and was “hyped up” to see another person doing it.

He didn’t come looking for answers from a stranger because he’d already found them by himself.

And when I read his e-mail, delight shot into pure happiness.

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