Hurt My Business
When I was studying abroad and later when I was living in Japan and working there as a teacher I was intimidated when ordering food. Especially when ordering pizza over the phone. I only did it a few times a year, with my voice wavering and my palms sweating. The person taking my order was never anything other than polite.
I would practice what I was going to say, whispering to myself as I stood in line to talk to a cashier or clerk at the bank, the grocery store or a restaurant. Sometimes I would walk down to the corner post office during my lunch break and the entire walk I would be rehearsing what I would say to the postal clerk.
It took a lot of courage for me to speak in Japanese. I never assumed I would be able to speak in English with anyone, although sometimes one of the guys at the post office spoke English if I was having trouble expressing what I wanted. I didn’t feel entitled to continue to speak in English even as I was studying or living in Japan. I knew I had to learn to speak Japanese in my daily life. But what gave me the desire to continue to learn was how polite and helpful the Japanese people with whom I interacted were. They would fawn over the simplest phrase, making sure I was aware of how authentic my accent was or how surprisingly clear I was in my effort to express myself. The guy at the post office would help me in English and then back off when we were sure that we understood each other. He tacitly encouraged me to keep trying when he switched back to Japanese once the problem had been resolved in English! Week after week I memorized the phrases I needed to send money home to the United States, to send a package to Peru, to pick up a package that had been left there for me. I got better because he and others allowed me to speak imperfectly, point at written instructions, gesture and smile meekly at first.
I didn’t just arrive speaking Japanese; I had to learn it gradually and painfully! That’s something that really hits you once you become a mother. You have to give your children their milk even if they call it “muk” or make signs with their hands. You can’t say, “Sorry. You’ll have to try that request at a later date once you can speak American.”
Many restaurants in Japan have picture menus and customers are expected to just point to what they want. If the customer wants to try pronouncing the order, that will certainly help the customer learn, but it is not something that the waiters rely on at all.
I am pissed off right now because a Philadelphia business owner wants people to order in English. He put up a sign at the front of his restaurant that has an eagle superimposed on the American flag (*sigh*) and the words, “This is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING ‘SPEAK ENGLISH.’” He seems a little frightened that someone might not know exactly what to say to get a goddamn cheesesteak. What if a mute person would like something to eat and tries pointing at pictures or handing the clerk a piece of paper? Nope, no time for that kind of customer service, because the owner of the restaurant wants to keep the line moving.
I think about how much progress my husband has made when ordering food in English. He used to struggle with pronunciation or just with his own self-consciousness. It can be intimidating to know that you are the one who is holding up the line because your communication skills are lacking. But he wanted to eat, so he practiced in similar situations to get a feel for how to get some food: talking to a cashier at a deli, talking to a waiter at a “sit-down” meal, ordering pizza over the phone, etc. He can even be understood at a drive-thru these days; now THAT is a sign of assimilation!
It seems redundant to ask your customers to order in English if you are an old white male business owner. I think they already get that. They’re not clueless, but English may not come easily to them. They may prefer learning English in real-life situations rather than staying at home hunched over an overpriced workbook. And if you would consider what a novel concept it is to treat everyone as if they are paying customers, I think you would reap the benefits of being a polite and humble business owner.
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