I am now traveling in Japan. As I speak some Japanese and know their social protocol, I don’t feel any difficulty here; but I do have some new feeling about their politeness.
In a supermarket, I politely asked a worker about where to find sugar. She was an elder lady in her 70s or 80s with a bent back, and it’s not unusual to find Japanese people at the age still working in markets or stores.
She led me to the shelf and told me about sugar varieties carefully. As a common practice in Japan, I thanked the lady as soon as she promptly smiled and took me all the way to the shelf, and I expressed my gratitude and apology for her time and the extra workload added.
I thanked her for like three or four times.
But she thanked me more than I did.
She thanked me for me bothered to ask her for their merchandise, for me to patronize the supermarket, for me considering to buy the sugar (as long as I asked) and for other reasons.
I knew it could be just a typical Japanese reflex, or even an unconscious reaction, to be polite for any inquiry, so I usually only offer adequate responses to thank back.
This could be just my side of the story, but I did have a different feeling about the elder lady’s appreciation to me.
If it were me at her age, I’d also thank the customer for choosing me, instead of my younger colleagues, as a seemingly reliable provider of the answers, and I am confidently capable of being helpful for fulfilling your living needs — even it’s just as simple as a pack of sugar.
This humble assistance could make my day by letting me feel good for being a useful person to others, rather than just a plain supermarket worker or a dependent old person.
There is a Japanese saying called “Ichi-go Ichi-e” (一期一會), meaning “you may just meet a person or something in particular once in your lifetime, so be sure to do your best to make the encounter as perfect and memorable as possible”.
I think the elder lady was a good example of this as she tried to serve me in a way she’d not regret, and she was thanking me for achieving this even more than I did.
Thanks to her again, and thank you for reading this.