If the young Japanese woman thought about it at all, she might have thought she was doing no more than what an American would do when an American speaks one way to his mother and another way to his drinking buddies. She’d come into the restaurant with a group of four or five businessmen where I was working as a waiter and cashier. None of the men spoke English, but her English was flawless. Better than mine.
This happened some years after I had divorced Tomoko, who was born and raised in Tokyo, but I at once recognized the young woman’s mannerisms. In every way — from how she spoke somewhat breathlessly to her deferential body language — she was being the proper, quite subservient Japanese lady as she translated the men’s menus for them. And that went on through-out breakfast. Every time I came to the table, there she was — being submissive to the men. But after their meal, something extraordinary happened.
As the men left the restaurant, she approached the cash register to pay the bill. And as she approached, she transformed herself. We got into a brief conversation, during which I learned she had attended university in the U.S. For the few minutes of our conversation, I could not have told the difference between her and a born American. Her American mannerisms were as flawless as her English.
So far as I know, Japanese and Americans do not think of themselves in the same way. Japanese culture encourages you, for most intents and purposes, to behave as different persons in different circumstances. A Japanese scholar even pointed out that the Japanese can sometimes be different persons in different rooms of their own homes. American culture, in contrast, encourages you to ignore the degree to which you actually do behave as different persons in different circumstances. Consequently, Americans tend to be somewhat more consistent in their behavior — although not nearly perfectly consistent.
When I used to visit her and her family, I was ill at ease because of the Stepford Wife smiles, the fake friendliness, the way everything in their house was too neat and pretty, and the total absense of spontaneity and genuine warmth. Underneath this fascade is a lot of cattiness and disdain for people who differ from her, which is why I stopped visiting.
Ahab then goes on to ask an intriguing question, “Are these negative emotions a by-product of feeling compelled to put up a false front? Or is this just who she is? I don’t know.”
It’s a question that seems to address an issue with authenticity — or being true to ourselves. Are we happier when we are being authentic, when we are being true to ourselves? And, when we put on fronts, do we tend to compensate ourselves for them by indulging in such negative behavior as, say, “cattiness and disdain”?
My admittedly limited experience of Japanese people suggests to me that the negative behavior is not a necessary consequence of putting on fronts. For I know Japanese people who are different persons in different rooms, so to speak, but who apparently do not routinely indulge in such negative behavior.
It seems like a very complicated issue to me, and I am not sure whether I have yet asked the right questions, let alone come up with the right answers. But I will repeat here my reply to Ahab on the other blog:
Some years ago, Ahab, I was accustomed to put on quite front when I was in business. Always gung-ho, upbeat, positive, cheerful, etc. It was part of the culture of the corporation I worked for. It got so instilled in me that I carried it over — in large measure — to the next company I worked for, a company I happened to own.
After a few years, my company hit some rocks and went out of business. I finally dropped my front. It felt — cliche as this sounds — exactly like a weight had been lifted from me. I was sorely depressed at the time, but it still felt like a weight had been lifted.
Now, here’s the irony: After getting rid of the gung-ho, upbeat, positive, cheerful front, and after the depression ended, I felt so much better that I rebounded into a natural enthusiasm and cheerfulness for life.
So, from my own experience, I think it is possible that we miss out on our own lives by putting on fronts. But that’s just my experience. What do you think?