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That’s Difficult

July 28th, 2003

Soon after I first came to live and work in Japan, I ran into an interesting social and linguistic difference between Japan and my native country: the ability to say “no.”

It was when I visited a store to purchase a large item, and I wanted to see if they could deliver it to my apartment. I asked the clerk, in Japanese, if they could do that. The clerk gave me a bit of a puzzled expression, you know, the neck-tilting head-scratching gesture, and said, “Mmmm, muzukashii ne.” “It’d be difficult.”

So of course, I ask him, “but is it possible?”

“Hehhhh… sa, hmmmm, muzukashii.”

“Yes, I know it might be difficult. But can you do it?”

“Ano ne, … aahhhh … ya, Muzukashii.”

It took several of these exchanges for me to realize that the clerk was not trying to be obstinate, but rather was simply, out of reflex, trying to avoid saying the word “no.” Neither of us could break through this wall, and so we had the rather amusing feedback loop. Just so when you hear someone in a service position telling you that it will be “difficult” to do something, you’ll know what it means.

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