I was living in Japan in the early 1990s, teaching English to workers in Japanese companies. I would travel to their offices, located all over Tokyo, in the morning before work began, or in the evening after the business day was over. The schedule could be exhausting, but the job had its pluses. For one thing, as a teacher, I was accorded the honorific title of sensei, and treated with a great deal of respect.
Sometimes my classes, especially those I met with in the evening, would show their respect and curiosity by hosting a dinner for me at a local restaurant. Higher-ranking executives tended to do this on the spur of the moment, while the students nearer the bottom of the ladder would often make plans in advance. The most elaborate dinner I was ever invited to was organized by a group of Honda factory workers — folks who punched in and spent the day on the assembly line. As a whole, their English skills were more basic than those of any other class I taught, but they were earnest in their studies.
One week after class, as we had agreed the week before, they drove me to a local restaurant, where a room in the back had been reserved for us to enjoy dinner. This was a traditional, multi-course meal. We sat on the tatami-mat floor around a long, low table. I was the guest of honor, seated in the middle, and to my right sat the highest-ranking member of this assembly of assemblers — a large class, nearly 30 men. As they came in and sat down, servers brought everyone glasses, and people began drinking beer and sake.
Once all were seated, the meal could begin in earnest. The first course was brought in. I had been in Japan for several months by this point, and I had eaten raw fish, I had eaten pizza slathered with mayonnaise and corn, I had eaten natto — a fermented soybean product that tastes like someone had eaten a sponge soaked in milk and kerosene and then, naturally, vomited it back up again — I did not think I could be surprised by food any more. I was wrong. In front of each diner was place a small dish, maybe three inches across, on which sat two twitching, gasping goldfish.
I turned to the group leader next to me. “Is this for eating?” I asked.
He nodded sagely, then showed me, picking up a goldfish with his chopsticks and dipping it into one of the bowls of soy sauce that had been laid out along the table. The fish began wriggling frenetically, and the group leader tossed it into his mouth.
Fortunately, by that point the sake I’d been drinking had kicked in, and dissolved my Western inhibitions about eating something that might explore my digestive tract under its own power. I shrugged, picked up a little non-Pepperidge Farm goldfish, gave it a soy sauce splash, and put it into my mouth. Before I swallowed it whole, I felt it thrashing around on my tongue, something between a caress and a tickle.
When I told this story later to a close Japanese friend, he explained to me with a remarkably straight face that that thrashing was, in fact, the point of the goldfish appetizer. One is supposed to plop the little creature on one’s tongue, where, irritated by the soy sauce, it wriggles around, stimulating and enlivening the taste buds to prepare them for the sumptuous repast to follow. This is not supposed to take much wriggling, my friend explained. While each person is provided with two fish, you are really only expected to eat one; the other one ordinarily gets sent back to the kitchen aquarium.
But at the time, I did not know that. What I knew was that, where I came from, if someone offered you food, and you accept it, then the polite thing to do was to eat it all. Besides, it wasn’t actually that bad; the tickling on the tongue was neat and new, and all I could really taste was soy sauce. So, having eaten Cosmo, I plucked up Wanda and popped her into my mouth.
The worker on my left noticed and asked me, “You like this?” Not wanted to be rude, I told him I did. He reached down to his tiny plate, with its solitary goldfish sitting there and no doubt feeling survivor’s guilt, and handed it to me. “Oh. Oh, thank you,” I said, smiling weakly, and feeling that it would be tremendously rude to refuse this kind gift that this student had obviously been saving for himself to enjoy. I picked up this third goldfish and ate it.
Word began to spread around the table — something like, “Sensei really likes these goldfish. Let’s all pass him our extra ones.” Not then knowing the truth of the tongue-tickling ritual, I presumed that each goldfish that was handed down the table to me amounted to the sacrifice of a delicacy by one of my hosts, and that etiquette demanded I honor that sacrifice by eating it. Believe me, after the fifth goldfish or so, the novelty had worn off, and I was certain I could feel things paddling around in my tummy. That can’t be right, I thought. Maybe I’m supposed to chew them up first. So I tried. That was not tasty.
But I kept eating them, because I assumed that by doing so I was sending my students the message: I am honored by your gifts, and I show my respect to you by accepting them wholeheartedly. I did not understand that the message they were receiving was: Sensei is weird. We’ve got a 10-course meal waiting, and he wants to eat the one course you’re not even supposed to taste. But he loves them — why else would he keep eating them? — and he’s the sensei, so let’s pass along our extras.
By the time the group leader broke the cycle by pointing out that the servers had been waiting for some time to serve the next course, and perhaps sensei would like to move on from the goldfish? — a straw I promptly grasped at — I had eaten 27 of those little orange morsels. Fortunately, they were not too filling, and I was able to enjoy the rest of the delicious meal with no problems. But I was still perplexed by my students’ behavior.
Only a week or so later, when I explained the incident to my Japanese friend, did I come to understand the truth. Eating the second fish had been the trigger, entirely unintentionally, but from that point on what I felt were my reactions (“Please let me honor you by eating this gift!”) to my students’ behavior were interpreted by them as requests (“Give me more goldfish!”). What they felt were their own reactions (“Quick! He needs his goldfish fix!”) to my behavior were interpreted by me as requests (“Please honor me by eating this!”).
Does this kind of miscommunication happen in the workplace? All the time. People don’t have to be from different countries to run into it. People from different regions of the same country, or people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, or people who have previously worked in very different office environments can encounter it as well. Sometimes, frustratingly, you might not even find out there is a potential for conflict or confusion until it actually happens. A good rule of thumb is: if your actions or words are causing what seem to you to be unpredicted reactions, or are supporting a vicious circle of behavior that you don’t support or understand, consider the possibility that what you think you are saying is not what the other person is hearing.