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Hurt My Business

December 15, 2007

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.

Pizza La's Mega Meat Pizza

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.Β  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.

. . .

  1. December 15, 2007 7:15 am

    Did you know that at the time of the Revolutionary War that 75% of the newspapers in our nation were published in German? By World War 1 the number had dropped to 50%, by 1918, there were only five papers left publishing in German. German is the only language to come before the US Congress for a vote to become the national language (it lost by one vote), and it is the only language which was made illegal to use in our nation’s history. I point out this fact, because German was what Spanish is today: one of the many native languages spoken in this country, which now has a place of prominence. We become so polarized by issues that we forget to look at them simply. Studies have shown that even though an immigrant might not master the common tongue of the nation that their children will. English will always be the main form of communication in our nation, because it is so established, so anger over a non-English speaker is ridiculous.

  2. December 15, 2007 8:25 am

    Thank you for your comment, Frank. I completely agree with you. My husband may not speak perfectly, but he tries, and our daughter and son have no trouble at all. They are bilingual and appreciate service at a business in either Spanish or English. It seems like everyone is aware that English is the main form of communication in the US, so anytime I see someone trying to emphasize that by passing an ordinance or putting up a sign, the stupidity of it all makes me angry.

  3. seaswell permalink
    December 15, 2007 1:50 pm

    Someone should tell that shop owner that English isn’t the official language in America – we don’t have one. We’re a country of immigrants – why is it so hard to remember that what some are struggling with now, our grandparents and great grandparents struggled with not so long ago?

    It’s funny – now that we live in New York, we’re often in restaurants where no one speaks English and we’re in the minority. It’s humbling and a little embarrassing to order, but it’s a good reminder of how others must feel on a day to day basis. what’s so hard about being accepting and understanding?

  4. December 15, 2007 4:30 pm

    I am glad your children are learning Spanish. I was in the Mexican consulate the other day, and they were surprised when I spoke to them in Spanish. I am not perfect, but at least I am understood. My son is twelve and he will speak Spanish, but he will not speak German with me, but others have told me that he is getting by. Even though I was born in this country, I grew up speaking German, so I know the feeling of not being understood. I wish your husband all the best in his adventure.

  5. December 15, 2007 7:01 pm

    The Philadelphia businessman (and many Americans who have no empathy for people unable to speak good English) should travel to a foreign country and walk in the shoes of a foreigner for a while. I came in contact with the French clerk from HELL a few years ago. I was looking for something in a Paris store, and although I tried my best to communicate with her, she was so mean and rude she almost brought me to tears. It was a very helpless feeling.

    Thanks for posting the other side of this never-ending debate!

  6. December 15, 2007 10:18 pm

    Seaswell, let’s hold out hope that this experience humbles that man and others who would have put up that same type of sign. πŸ™‚ I would love to go to all the different kinds of restaurants in NYC!

    Frank, I admire you for having part of your webpage in Spanish and for speaking Spanish at the consulate. πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing your experience with me here and thanks for the well-wishes.

    Brenda, I know the feeling. Luckily I often found business owners in Japan who went above and beyond to serve me. Once I bought a blanket and the owner noticed I was pregnant. She gave me a Beanie Baby to give to my unborn daughter. That almost brought me to tears, but in a good way πŸ˜‰

    Why a business owner would be mean and rude to a customer who is having difficulty communicating is just beyond my capacity to understand. He says he wouldn’t do anything to hurt his business. But turning away someone does hurt his business. How can he not make that connection? Why would he even open a service industry business like a restaurant in a multi-cultural district if he wants to make people feel helpless and worthless? Thanks for sharing your experience in Paris.

  7. December 18, 2007 11:29 pm

    This is a very interesting and difficult concept. I feel compelled to support the store owner’s right to choose to run his business as he wants. That said, I think it is rude, inappropriate, and poor business practice. Boy, don’t I sound conflicted?

    My wish is that people would try to be accommodating. As you said, why would he open a service business, if he doesn’t want to be service oriented. My antagonistic side thinks it might be fun to line-up a hundred people at lunch hour to all order in languages which are not English. Or maybe you could convince him to come live at my place for a year of tolerance building.

    I was so excited last night at the restaurant because the restaurant owner told us to call him when we knew what we wanted and I understood him. He was using the polite osshatte kudasai. Another layer of my ignorance is being peeled away.

  8. December 19, 2007 8:13 am

    Bikkuri, I think that would be fun to line up 100 people and all order in foreign languages. I’m totally there! Of course, then we would be charged with international terrorism since you are in Japan and we are plotting to disrupt his business. 😦 Better not do that.

  9. Daphne permalink
    December 20, 2007 12:08 am

    fightingwindmills, hope you don’t mind me adding my two-cents. You’ve intrigued me with all your talk of Japan. I lived there when I was a small child (5-7) and it brings back such fond memories for me. My travels as a child (also to Italy) are the foundation for many of my views and values. (Do they still play a game called minkos(sp)?). I had ramen loooonnnggg before it got to America (and we think we’re so advanced!) πŸ™‚

    Regarding the cheesesteak dingaling, I wonder if he values Little Italy or Chinatown? I do believe english has a place in our country much like japanese has to japan and french has to france. Somehow these cultures have succeeded in getting one language accepted as the common language while encouraging other languages as well with great success. And I do think citizens have an obligation to learn the language that is used in the operation of the government.
    Unfortunately the cheesesteak dingaling probably looks at the stats on how many people around the world are learning english and thinks that means the world revolves around America, the same America that is one big imported shopping bag. Sad.

    Instead of requiring every american to learn english, I think we should encourage every american to live in another country for 1 year. I think the spread of compassion and peace would run rampant.

  10. December 20, 2007 8:32 am

    Daphne, Welcome! Thank you for your comment. I think living outside of America for at least a year is an excellent way to humble an American.

    If I remember correctly, each year the Japanese government has to approve a list of borrowed words that have sneaked into daily conversations (usually through television commercials). These words usually get an official spelling in katakana and encroach on the integrity of the Japanese language. The government is always trying to balance acceptance of new words with protecting their native words.

    I don’t remember a game called minkos because the students I taught were in high school. They didn’t teach me many games. 😦

  11. December 20, 2007 8:47 am

    I haven’t heard of Minkos either… that doesn’t mean it isn’t around though. What kind of game was it?

  12. Daphne permalink
    December 22, 2007 11:38 pm

    Minkos may have gone out of fashion since the time I was there (69-72). It involved small rectangle pieces of cardboard collectable cards. They usually had different characters or famous people on them. The object is to try and flip the other persons minko by slapping it with yours on the ground. We used to try and hit the corners of the minko ’cause that helped to flip it. If you flipped it, you got it. Sometimes we would tape more than one together and use it as the “flipper”, but you had to establish whether these “doubles” or “triples” were allowed. probably just a phase that the whole nation went thru – sorta like pokeman :).

    My favorite treat used to be a box of little cookie sticks covered in chocolate. yum yum.

    Our japanese babysitter, Mickey, used to put us to bed and we would do this routine, calling her name – “Mickey?”, and she would say “Oyasuminasai”… “Mickey?”…”Oyasuminasai”, back and forth. This and many other little memories have convinced me that we are much more similar than different.

    Have a peaceful and warm holiday!

  13. December 23, 2007 10:08 am

    Collecting cards is still really popular in Japan, so maybe children still play that game. My husband used to buy packs of plastic Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon cards. Having plastic cards would make playing minkos a lot easier, right? My students taught me janken. They were obsessed with using janken to make every decision. Daphne, do you remember that game? The cookie sticks are my favorite treat, too. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the holiday wishes! I hope yours is peaceful and warm too.

  14. December 23, 2007 10:33 am

    Pocky is the tastiest of the “cookie sticks” and the most heavily marketed. They have created flavors ad nauseum; including flavors in delicate, curly, 3-D layers. I was amused when they created the more austere “Men’s Pocky” a bit sexist, but probably an accurate recognition that most of us guys aren’t drawn to a chiffon pocky. Today we ate the chocolate covered Pretz at a Christmas party. Pretz (ignoring the desire to assume they are like pretzels) are the cheap cousin of pocky.

    Certainly there are traditional games for flipping cards. I can’t recall the names off the top of my head; mostly because they aren’t so popular, but they do come up on TV programs. This week is time for lots of nostalgia shows on the tube, so maybe they’ll be talking about it.

    Daphne’s comment about “famous people” being on the cards, at first made me think she meant Karuta (Carta), but in the most popular form, Hyakunin Isshu, involves being the first to find a card and slap it away from the playing area.

    Janken (Rock Paper Scissors) is indeed still popular. Truly any dispute can be resolved by janken. This applies to all ages, not just children; and to any level of seriousness. Because China, Russia, and Korea never signed peace treaties with Japan, there are still heated disputes over territories with those three countries. Last year Russians killed a Japanese fisherman and held crew from the ship for awhile. I have suggested that janken be used to settle the disputes. As silly as it sounds, I think Japanese people would accept that as fair. I doubt if Russia and Korea would go for that; and China would want to try again every year until they won. Sounds a lot less silly than continuing the bickering though.

  15. December 23, 2007 10:57 am

    I agree that janken can resolve any dispute, large or small.

    Trying to decide if it’s the right time to start a family? Play rock, paper, scissors.
    There’s only one green tea left in the vending machine? Play rock, paper, scissors.

  16. rosiemolinary permalink
    December 23, 2007 12:27 pm

    While it breaks my heart to see those signs or hear those sentiments on the news because it so rails against what I appreciate about America– which is her diversity and the rich way that it has informed and bettered my life– it also makes the former United States history teacher in me want to march up and give the person a history lesson about American’s choice to acquire Puerto Rico- a Spanish speaking country- as a commonwealth. We– the US– lost our ability to be righteous about English as our β€œsole” language probably many different times including when we took possession of a Spanish speaking country. We can’t imperialize when it’s convenient, use that country’s men and women in our militaries and elsewhere, and they deny their tongue and heritage. It’s indecent and unethical, and it denies a whole segment of our population who have also sacrificed their lives for this country–lives that have just as much value as their English speaking brothers and sisters in arms. I love the idea of having all Americans live elsewhere for a year– it would be revolutionary individually and for our national ethos.

    And on a completely different note– but in honor of the holidays (as I have seen people behave terribly in retail stores), I also think everyone should have to work retail or in a restaurant for a year so we all learn how to treat those who are waiting on us, helping us, or ringing us out more compassionately.

  17. December 23, 2007 5:52 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Rosie. πŸ™‚ I am really bothered by the righteous misuse of imagery like the flag and the eagle and I get upset when I think about how often “we” as a country have acted like an empire. I wish I could be a patriotic citizen of America, the country, rather than the American Empire. You make great points about the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico.

  18. December 24, 2007 9:56 am

    Wow, what a great discussion here. I’m late to the party, been busy with work and holiday things, no surprise.

    On the issue Rosie mentioned, I was reminded yesterday that last year I posted about the Waiter Rule – see For some reason, that post has attracted several hits lately.

    The Waiter Rule is often used by CEOs and other execs when evaluating potential hires: if the prospective employee treats waiters and other service people rudely, they are not getting hired. The idea of course is that people will naturally treat CEOs and higher-ups nicely, but they may be totally different with those they perceive as of lower rank.

    On the main subject, I’m not at all happy that I speak only one language. I may study Spanish as one of my 2008 projects. The main 2008 project is to really learn yoga. Which ought to introduce at least a dozen foreign words into my vocabulary, anyway.

    Happy holidays and happy new year!

  19. February 4, 2008 5:54 pm

    My sister speaks English, Spanish and Portugese. She tried to teach me Portugese for a while, then Spanish, but i was so self-concious and became so frustrated i gave up.

    i worked for government assistance department in my hometown where there are a great number of Mexicans. i knew only a few phrases in Spanish to point customers in the right direction but i often called an interpretor. When i ruined the language, the customers would smile at me or pat my hand and try to help me out. When they struggled with English i was very patient even if others were not. i felt it must be difficult for them, and they were trying so hard.

    My feeling is that it is good to speak English here in America because most of our interaction with businesses and institutions primarily offer information in English. The only problem is that generally, we do not have the patience to allow people to learn it in a practical way, as you were able to do in Japan. Most are not patient, most are not helpful. We have people putting up racist signs in the windows of their businesses or being rude to those who are difficult to understand.

    Great insight, Windmills. i will pray for that business owner.

  20. February 4, 2008 7:20 pm

    Whatever happened to this guy? Did the news follow up on him? Has he seen the light and taken down the sign? Did his business suffer from his decision? Inquiring minds want to know. πŸ™‚

  21. February 4, 2008 11:15 pm

    I lived in Germany for a year as a high school student, and boy can I relate to your stories of being so intimidated when trying to order food. It really gave me a jolt as a (bit of a) cocky high schooler who thought she was so smart to realize that I could have so much difficulty functioning, and a need to rely on the kindness of others. Thanks for writing this and spurring this conversation here.

  22. February 5, 2008 7:56 am

    Suz, the waiter rule makes a lot of sense to me. I can see how that would help weed out rude prospects. How are your 2008 projects of yoga and Spanish coming along?

    christine, thanks for sharing your experience. I think you’re right in contrasting the experiences of interacting with a patient and helpful person vs. interacting with a racist and rude person.

    Bikkuri, I don’t know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say. πŸ˜›

    Ann, thanks for sharing your experience. Going abroad is truly humbling, but ideally it shouldn’t be debilitatingly humiliating. It all depends on the people you meet and whether or not they are kind.

  23. March 19, 2008 6:54 pm

    Bikkuri, here is the follow-up story. A three-person commission decided that the owner does have the right to display that sign in his front window.

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