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UPDATED MAY 12, 2012
Hi Blog. Before I get to the text of this column, I just want to say thank you to the readership for making IT probably my most read and most positively-received.
It stayed for well over a week within the Top Ten Most Read Articles on the Japan Times Online (almost every day in and out of the #1 spot), and garnered more than 4300 Facebook “Likes”, a personal record for me. I wonder if it is for the JT too. It also occasioned a JT Poll, which received more than 6000 responses (well over double the usual number), with nearly half saying “I’ve got a point”:
A piece of your mind: Gaijin and ‘micro-aggressions’
Debito Arudou’s column this week denounced rote questions aimed at gaijin [sic] as “micro-aggressions.” What do you think?
|He’s got a point. Those little things wear you down.
Well, I didn’t want to take hits away from the JT while it was still trending, so until this update I just had a link to the column there and approved comments in real time below. Now I’ll attach the text with links to sources.
Again, I want to thank everyone for their reading, commenting, and support. I really appreciate it. I hope to do columns that resonate as much in future. Arudou Debito
The Japan Times Tuesday, May 1, 2012
JUST BE CAUSE
Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down
By ARUDOU, Debito
Column 51 for the Japan Times Community Page, version with links to sources.
Have you ever noticed how many interpersonal interactions in Japan are like “speed dates” of set questions?
For example, the taxi drivers who have the odd fascination about where you’re from, whether you’re married, how much you like Japan, and how hard you think the Japanese language is?
The barkeeps and clientele who try to slot you into their hackneyed preconceptions of some country and nationality, what you can and cannot eat, and (as things get drunker) how much you enjoy having physical liaisons with Japanese?
The neighbors who have a white-hot curiosity about how differently you raise your kids, what you fight with your spouse about, and how much you like Japan — regardless of how many years you’ve been interacting?
In the beginning, these were dismissible as just acts of awkward friendliness by people who didn’t know how else to approach you. It at least made you really good in certain areas of Japanese conversation.
But after years of repeat games, boredom sets in, and you begin to realize two things: 1) that you can sleepwalk through most conversations, and 2) that, if you stay awake, you see there is a larger issue at play here: social control — something increasingly recognized by social psychologists as “microaggressions.”
Microagressions, particularly those of a racialized nature, are, according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue in Psychology Today (Oct. 5, 2010), “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”
They include, in Japan’s case, verbal cues (such as “You speak such good Japanese!” — after saying only a sentence or two — or “How long will you be in Japan?” regardless of whether a non-Japanese (NJ) might have lived the preponderance of their life here), nonverbal cues (people espying NJ and clutching their purse more tightly, or leaving the only empty train seat next to them), or environmental cues (media caricatures of NJ with exaggerated noses or excessive skin coloration, McDonald’s “Mr. James” mascot (JBC, Sept. 1, 2009)).
Usually these are unconscious acts grounded in established discourses of interactions. Nobody “means” to make you feel alienated, different, out of place, or stereotyped.
But microaggressions are also subtle societal self-enforcement mechanisms to put people “in their place.” For NJ, that “place” is usually the submissive status of “visitor” or “guest,” with the Japanese questioner assuming the dominant position of “host” or “cultural representative of all Japan.”
It’s a powerful analytical tool. Now we have a word to describe why it gets discomfiting when people keep asking if you can use chopsticks (the assumption being that manual dexterity is linked to phenotype), or if you can eat nattō (same with taste buds), or if you’ll be going “home” soon (meaning Japan is just a temporary stop in your life and you don’t belong here). It can even help you realize why it’s so difficult for the NJ long-termer to become a senpai in the workplace (since NJ subordination is so constant and renewed in daily interaction that it becomes normalized).
Now let’s consider microaggression’s effects. Dr. Sue’s research suggests that subtle “microinsults and microinvalidations are potentially more harmful (than overt, conscious acts of racism) because of their invisibility, which puts (visible minorities) in a psychological bind.”
For example, indicate that you dislike being treated this way and the aggressor will be confused; after all, the latter meant no harm, so therefore the NJ must just be overly “sensitive” — and therefore also “troublesome” to deal with. Resistance is not futile; it is in fact counterproductive.
Yet do nothing and research suggests that “aggressees” become psychologically drained over time by having to constantly question the validity of their position and devote energy to dealing with this normalized (and after a while, predictable) “othering” that nobody else (except — shudder — the alienated NJ barflies) seems to understand.
So in come the coping strategies. Some long-termers cultivate a circle of close friends (hopefully Japanese, but rarely so: JBC, Aug. 2, 2011), others just become hermits and keep to themselves. But those are temporary solutions. Sooner or later you have to take a taxi, deal with a restaurateur, have words with your neighbors.
And then, like it does for the hikikomori (the “shut-ins,” who are also victims of other strains of microaggression), you begin to dread interacting with the outside world.
Therein lies the rub: Microaggressions have such power because they are invisible, the result of hegemonic social shorthand that sees people only at face value. But your being unable to protest them without coming off as paranoid means that the aggressor will never see that what they say might be taken as prejudiced or discriminatory.
The power of microaggression is perhaps a reason why activists like me occasion such venomous and obsessive criticism, even online stalkers.
I happen to fight the “big fights” (such as “Japanese Only” signs and rules, official propaganda about foreign crime). But I also fight microaggressions (the racist word “gaijin,” the oddly destructive platitude of “ganbatte,” the effects of NJ being addressed by name without a “san” attached), because after decades of experience I know where they lead to: perpetual subordinate status.
Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist, reactionary and paranoid in the eyes of the critics (especially the NJ ones, who seem to think I’m somehow “spoiling” Japan for them), either because they haven’t experienced these microaggressions for themselves, or because they live in denial.
“Know how to pick your battles,” some decry. Fortunately, the battle is partially won, because now this dynamic of low-level aggression and “othering” is less invisible. We finally have a word in the English language (hopefully someday in Japanese too) to identify it, and social scientists endeavoring to quantify it.
Someday we just might be able to empower ourselves away from our own microaggressive self-policing of preconception and prejudice. And we will gain the appropriate respect for those brave enough to stand up to it. And at least the daily questions might become less boring!
Arudou Debito has written the Hokkaido section for the 20th edition of Fodor’s Japan guidebook, which is out now. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org
201 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column May 1, 2012, “Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down””
Jim, I have noticed the same reactions to my walking-while-white, but I also often get “kuso!” said under the breath just after passing just loud enough to make you wonder if you really heard what you thought you did. It happens often enough to be more than a co-incidence and not my imagination. I usually repeat it back to them just loud enough for them to wonder. If the friendly chopsticks and nihongojouzu things are micro-aggressive then this is major-aggressive.
@ Debito #150
Thanks! Yeah, I know, it sounds kind of paranoid which I why I wanted to ask a wider spectrum of people. I will be quite satisfied if this is just me ‘paying too much attention’, and ‘reading too much into’ these things, rather than something sinister.
Jim! I totally agree with your observation! Maybe not every time but it happens regularly enough for it to be a phenomenon.
It even happens to me at work as a deliberate form of othering and rejection by my “colleagues”.
I agree with Debito to be careful with this. However, to dismiss Jim and Fred’s observations would be a mistake, as some apologists might be tempted to do. I can’t personally say this has happened on a regular basis to me, but it has happened. It was usually older men.
Yep, the sound of disapproval which you wrote as “tutt” can also be written as “tsk”.
And yes, when a gaijin is walking around without a japanese chaperon, it happens a lot.
The sudden spitting on the ground when seeing a gaijin without a japanese chaperon is common.
They practice this less when you are with a japanese chaperon, because japanese know this is rude.
Japanese even feel that clearing one’s throat is a message of disapproval, they control that: around Japanese.
These are the kinds of things whites were still doing to blacks 60 years ago, let’s admit: humans do racist things.
The deniers-of-Japanese-racism say “No, japanese don’t practice such racism. Whites did, but japanese don’t.”
The Japanese racism against gaijin today mentioned above is very much like white racism against blacks in 1950.
The deniers-of-Japanese-racism say “No, the japanese are positively unique, they DON’T practice such racism.”
@JDG: I know what you mean, there is a certain demographic in Japan and China seemingly naturally inclined to display the “damn foreigner” attitude by way of a intake of breath or tut – it merely displays first their cowardly nature to use non-direct gestures.
DO NOT focus on it! Debito is right, it will only lead to you becoming paranoid and funny-in-the-head. It will bring you down to their level of pettiness and you’ll end up as a strange (even stranger) gaijin who strides around aggressively muttering at middle age J-men by way of preemptive strikes on your “enemy” which will only lead people to treat you even worse than they do now, therefore justifying your actions and continuing the cycle of pain.
Think about this: In China (and I’m guessing Japan) people can sometimes stare at foreigners. For ages this really annoyed me and I would stare back. However, after a while I realised that half the time, people were mostly staring because I had been looking at them first as a kind of defensive preemptive staring competition: I look at them, they look back, I feel stared at and annoyed. Not always the case, but just like with the tutting, when stared at now (unless in a terrible mood) I just smile to myself, look away and carry happily on my way, in the full knowledge that I have the moral high ground and I’m not letting their dumb little opinion matter.
Fred and Jim – I noticed the same thing. But my personal conclusion is these are just nervous reactions/ticks. Definitely my presence is causing them, but more nerves than anything malicious.
@ Jim Di Griz @150
@ Fred Dagg @ 151
Ditto…I second that. It does not happen that frequently, but it does happen often enough that I’m familiar with this pattern (especially, when it comes to a certain type of person, as Jim Di Griz noted).
I think the reason no one has brought it up before is that most of us try to ignore it, lest, it lead us down the rabbit hole to mental illness (to use Debito’s words above). The way I justify ignoring these types of people to myself, is by thinking that I am not going to stoop down to their level.
Debito, this is one of those rare occassions, where I’ll have to disagree with you. I think there is definitely something to Jim Di Griz’s point, and it’ not just paranoia.
Jim Di Griz:
To test your hypothesis, do you know (or do others) whether other East Asians who appear outwardly to be Japanese receive similar treatment?
And I should see whether other marginalised groups that are not foreigners see this.
I know that some J transvestite friends tell me that they are often the object of bad treatment, but I have not heard this specifically referred to.
And what of the handicapped? Are they so treated?
@ above, my experience too, I say or do the same thing back immediately, only more loudly and several times. I have never got into a fight doing this, but that doesnt prove anything. Debito is right about the mental illness aspect, and I think living in Tokyo or another major Japanese city will make one slightly mentally ill to a small degree, but it is so widespread but not admitted that it is nothing to be ashamed of, probably like a nervous tick (which I also developed in Tokyo after sensing that certain indirect actions tended to mean I was being blamed for something in the office which I would not be blamed for in a western country) or a common cold.
Tokyo is paranoid inducing at the very least.
Thanks for all the considered replies!
I don’t want to be paranoid or hyper-sensitive. I am reassured (to a degree) by the comments, since this means that maybe I am not just imagining it (as my J-wife suspects). I can handle this in so far is it an impotent display of disapproval from powerless and cowardly oyaji, and shoot them back a beaming smile (^-^)b (maybe with a super genki ‘konnichiwa’ thrown in).
As an indicator of disapproval, it seems to suggest a rather large number of older J men don’t like NJ, which is rather depressing.
Although the tsk sound is the most common, I have also heard the quiet “kuso!” amongst other choice phrases. These have included:
“kaeri” – go home
“baka gaijin” – stupid NJ
“kusei” – bad smell
“dette iki” – get out
Sometimes I have turned around and loudly berated people but they often ignore me or pretend they don’t know why I am angry. I think this phenomenon is particularly bad in Osaka. It’s not just older men either, rather a cross-section of society, men, women and children and it’s shows just how deeply discrimination is ingrained into the national psyche.
Does anyone have any suggestions on the best way to deal with this problem?
I used to get the tongue clicking quite often where I live in Osaka, and I trained myself to click back louder instantly and without a thought.
These days though I don’t get it nearly as often. I suspect that part of the reason is that I’ve got more grey hairs than brown on my head, and that affords me a little more civility from the other ojisan.
@ Fight Back: As I said in my post above (#156), the only way to deal with this is to rise above it.
Just smile to yourself with the knowledge that you’re the one with more than two brain cells to rub together and carry on your way.
If someone is THAT ignorant and petty that they mutter “stupid gaijin” under their breath, then the chances of you being able to convince them otherwise (either by civilized conversation or a shouting match) are next to none.
The way to stop this kind of behaviour is via the actions promoted by Debito and others – ie fighting for and end to the negative portrayal of NJs in the J media and classroom.
Having a shouting match with a bigot in the street is only going to result in the ingraining of their stereotype of “crazy gaijin” and your blood pressure going through the roof.
@JDG and the other tsk experiencers – I don’t get the *tsk* that often – I put this down to being petite, dark-haired and female, therefore not so in-your-face foreign as a 6-foot blonde, but I noticed it excessively so when I was heavily pregnant. And it was the same demographic. Old men. Women would smile, young men would make no reaction, but old men would stare to a degree that was positively rude and mutter comments under their breath. One even said in a loud voice while walking past me “debu dayo na – hara ga!” (literally – “your belly is so fat!”) I sensed a powerful disapproval like “how dare you foreigners breed!”. This kind of thing happened often enough that I became almost paranoid about leaving the house.
Fight back, must be the old cliche of Osakans being more outgoing and aggressive, or direct! I have never had it that bad in Tokyo, it has always been more passive aggressive and exclusionist. I did once get repeatedly kicked in the shins on the Yamanote though.
I have dealt with the same sort of thing being caught caucasian while walking the street. Not sure about the Osaka comparison though. I probably had a worse time in Tokyo with regard to this issue. I have had people in Tokyo yell this kind of thing at me in a train station. Mind you, this would be the most extreme of occurences though. I think they are either trying to get a rise out of you or just think they can do it because they sincerely believe you can’t understand them and they are just blowing off steam or showing off to their friends.
The reason our significant others don’t notice all the subtle snubs I think is for a few reasons. One is that people tend to keep to themselves when out as a couple as the Japanese partner is probably seen as our “ally” who would alert us to such attitudes. So they end up keeping quiet. Another reason might be that they notice is but actively ignore it on a sub-concious level. Our Japanese better half might expect this kind of thing as normal because we are NJ.
I suspect its a combination of both. I have ceased pretty much all mention of this kind of issue with my significant Japanese other. We may be their main squeeze, but they still have the Japanese voice inside them that can’t help but think “If you can’t deal with it then why are you in Japan?”
I tend to bottle any unhappy experiences up until I can blow off some steam with an understanding friend over a beer or sing my heart out at the karaoke.
I am a frequent reader but never comment . I felt I just had to comment on this and let other people know they aren’t dillusional.
I recommend either ignoring it flat-out (as in don’t even take notice to occurences) or by putting on the headphones and blasting music. I don’t like music all and like to know what is going on around me so I do the former.
If you give it any of your energy it will have a negative affect on you.
The spitting on the pavement and the making of comments as the foreigner passes by has happened to me and to many of my friends with whom I was discussing this issue this evening. Just makes you want to chin the culprits but you can’t do that so you just end up ignoring it. Disgusting though.
16 years in Japan and I’ve never noticed this sort of behaviour happening to me. I’ve had a few fist fights with chimpura types in my time, when I was younger, but never experienced this from ordinary Japanese.
If I did, sorry, but these passive ‘smile above it’ types on here, have it wrong. Any person behaving like this to me would get a good sly kick in the shins at the least, I don’t care who was doing it. Just in the same way that if I saw someone making derogatory remarks to a southern Asian or Afro-carib in my home country would get a likewise reaction from me. Racists are nearly always cowardly and unhappy people, and understand only one language.
16 years in Japan has made me jaded and rather doubtful that I might convey the same interventionist reaction to a north east Asian guest in my own country. I am a rather strong believer in reciprocality is the best educator when empathy is missing. ‘Do onto others …..
@ Scipio 169
I think a reason you may never have experienced this is that, judging from your comments, you don’t seem like the kind of guy (or, gal, which would be even cooler!) who would take this type of thing laying down.
One thing I’ve noticed about these types of micro-aggressors is how perceptive they are about their victims, and will only do it to a person if they think they can get away with it (goes to the point above of these guys being cowards). It’s a power thing.
I bet it is more likely to happen to a NJ when he/she is going about passively doing their own thing, as compared to if the same NJ was walking about with a more muscular or aggressive stance (or, just looked more intimidating in general).
The problem is that most of us cannot act preemptively and always have our guard up, since these jerks seem to suddenly come out of nowhere, and the micro-aggression happens without any advance warning. It’s the equivalent of a hit-and-run.
I’m working on developing an iPhone app which beeps anytime one of these guys is withing five meters of approaching you, so one can act preemptively (sorry, just being facetious).
Just one more comment from me that might help some of you experiencing these microagressions and not finding any support with you incredulous friends/partners.
Get yourself an up-to-date digital voice recorder. They are small, light, relatively inexpensive and record around 60 hours straight and very high quality. Just turn it on in the morning and put it in your jacket pocket and forget about it.
I started doing this when I had some trouble with a co-worker (superior) who was harassing me in private but never in public when others could hear. People just didn’t really believe me when I told them what he was doing.
A voice record does wonders at opening people’s eyes. The guy who was harassing me was eventually fired.
I wish I could tell the whole story, but for various reasons, I can’t tell it here.
— I agree. I did the same when people in my former “university” were academically harassing me. Recording all of their conversations made it so that I could expose them properly when I quit. Recommended.
@ Giantpanda #165
Thank you for your comment. I am saddened to hear that you were insulted for being pregnant- that’s pretty low behavior. I have heard from other western female friends in Japan about much more ‘physical’ incidents with oyaji, of the type that would have been classed as a sexual assault in my home country (three female friends; one German, one Swedish, and one American have all had older Japanese men masturbate onto them whilst riding commuter trains in the Osaka area. I don’t want to derail this thread, but surprised that this hasn’t come up amongst NJ women as an issue either here or at some other blog; or maybe it has, but I missed it?).
Thanks for all the other comments for confirming I am not just imagining it!
Yesterday, I got grunted at (that throat clearing sound) by a guy most likely younger than me in Shibuya while passing by heading towards the Apple store. We weren’t even close enough in distance to bother each other’s presence. Be as it may, I decided to test the theory and grunted back, which I’ve done before. Usually from my previous experiences those guys just move on, but in this guy’s case and being with his girl, I guess he was feeling like he had to be “strong”. So, he gave out this really obnoxious grunt and that confirmed it wasn’t paranoia.
Micro-aggressions or not, it just seems all so pitiful. Just minding my own business, but I guess according to some apologists…just recalling this story makes me a racist. Never mind the three times I’ve been checked by the police just this year already and once wasn’t even for my ARC, but my passport while on vacation. So I guess it’s getting to the point where they don’t even care for tourists’ money??
FWIW, I am a young black male.
Debito, sorry to hear that you had to quit your university because of academic harassement. That really sucks. I really hope you found some other decent position?
— Yes. I’m an Affiliate Scholar at the East-West Center, thanks for asking. And the academic harassment was only part of the reason I quit. I’ll get into it sometime. Just not now. I have much more important things to do here.
@TJJ. exactly; part of life medium to long term is regrettably, adapting to and training oneself on how to deal with these little “tsk’ slights without 1. thinking too much about them and 2. without developing mental problems. The easiest way is what you do; as soon as you hear a “tsk” automatically also say “tsk” slightly more loudly or 2 or 3 times while going on your way (dont be put out by these grumpy oyaji) and without bothering to make eye contact.
Debito, I know you dismissed this “Tsk!” phenomenon at first for lack of evidence but I think it needs to be written about,(perhaps with an eye catching title lke “Tsk!”); it is one of the great unsolved mysteries of street life in Japan. It would also be interesting if a survey had been done, of Japanese people such as
Q1. When someone says “tsk” what does it mean?
Q2. When someone grunts (@ Amused foreigner) what does it mean?
Q3. When a Japanese (typically oyaji) spits on the street near you, what does it mean? (Since spitting carries a heavy fine in many places in Asia.)
Most Japanese tend to ignore other Japanese in public if they do not know them, to ignore is a virtue, to confront is not acceptable. The best answer I ever got for Q1. was “He must be pi$$ed off about something” (i.e. no direct consideration that it could be directed at the passing NJ).
Westerners tend to glamourize or exoticize Japan (its why we came here)and look for deep meanings in everything, but there is in fact none. I am afraid that I will be disappointed again and in fact a “tsk” in Japan means the same as a “tsk” in the west!
It would also be interesting if there was a way to find out if Japanese body language and grunts/tsks are a recent phenomenon or not, as a result of Americanization after WW2, yet once again claimed as “Japanese”.
@Jim Di Griz – the groping, the masturbating, the flashers, the panty thieves – that kind of thing happens to women of all nationalities in Japan, and probably most of all to Japanese women. Much more an issue of sexism than racism.
By the way – although covert recordings of conversations are illegal and/or inadmissible in court in some counties, Japan is not one of them. Covert recordings can and are produced in court, and are routinely accepted as evidence. @TJJ’s suggestion is a good idea if you are being subjected to any kind of unfair treatment, or even if you are discussing things with the authorities (your visa issues, your taxes, etc.) that you will want to rely on.
I believe these kinds of ‘invisible’ micro-aggressions to be the most insidious because often the experience is denied by others.
I mention this because it one of the reasons leading up to divorce with my spouse. Whether you could say that she simply didn’t believe me or she was protecting her countrymen I don’t know but the accusations of paranoia ran counter to my own experiences and it’s great to see that backed up here.
Please do be aware that when you enter into marriage with a Japanese that there will always be situations where you are on your own. Apologists may dismiss this as compromise but it’s a cold hard fact of life in Japan.
— Many Japanese would say (and they have many times in my experience) that “There will always be situations where you are on your own, even for Japanese. After all, everyone dies alone. Therefore become an adult.” It’s not exactly engendering of empathy.
When we were dating I would tell her some racist things that happened to me and she would say I must have not understood, or that they just were interested in me or they had naturally loud voices or something else. She would always make excuses and couldn’t believe that Japanese would behave that way.
After we got married she changed her tune when she was there with me to experience (some of) the same things. She doesn’t make excuses for them anymore.
Exactly my experience too. I actually made my wife follow me around so we looked as though we weren’t together, so that she could see it for herself. It blew her mind.
I asked my girlfriend to hang back when we head to the register for 会計。I got tired that they’d just look at her when I’m the one trying to purchase something…
everybody is different I guess. I have had people tell me they have had absolutely no trouble in Japan ( I dont believe it) and others have had more trouble than me. I seem to encounter a group of busy bodies who dislike me, everywhere I go in Japan. Gym staff, kaisha employees, gomi betsu managers, supa clerks, ji ji kai ursai hitos, koen okusamas who like to complain etc etc. I dont know why, but its just my reality.
@ Scipio #169
As the the great Mark Twain said: “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and win by experience”
That is why arguing with these guys will not work. Fighting them will just re-enforce the notion of the “crazy gaijin”.
We could campaign to educate Japanese society that people who look NJ are to be treated like everyone else – just like those African Americans were campaigning for in the US in the 1950s-60s.
The civil rights movement in the US prevailed by way of peaceful protest. Yes, there are still plenty of racist sh*ts in the US and other Western countries, nevertheless, at least the majority now look down on them and we can hope that they die a natural death.
May the dumb old men of Japan also meet a quick but natural end to life’s mortal coil, while modern Japan finds a more enlightened route.
@ Fight back Comment #177, I feel for you. Westerners are looking for partners with whom they can share every thought and emotion on an equal footing.
A Japanese marriage is more of a social contract along these lines, not an equal partnership; you get one thing and have duties, he/she gets another. Certain things are not attractive or acceptable to Japanese, even to ones with considerable overseas experience. Source? I speak from bitter experience.
I thought my ex would be the last person to expect a man to be silent, stoic, uncomplaining, bringing back the bacon while putting on a fake, brave smile (tatemae) on the complete abuse he was suffering at work, but actually she took their side and berated me. The last thing a man needs is a nag after a day of nagging.
If you are looking for a sympathetic ear after a hard days’s work, this is not the place in my experienced opinion (it is still just an opinion).”Just shut up and provide” is definitely deeply engrained as “otoko rashii”. Sure, this happens in the west too, but this is gender roles with a Japanese twist (e.g. emphasis on silence, gaman as a virtue, limited role of wife/role of hostess as alternative shoulder to cry on). Natch, I generalize, but I generalize because its widespread.
— We’re getting off track.
I’ve experienced most of the microaggressions mentioned by Debito in his column.
I’d just like to throw out a couple questions for everyone, mainly out of curiousity.
1. Does the magnitude of the MA problem change depending on what part of Japan you live in? I’ve only ever lived in the Nagoya area. I wonder whether it would be worse in inaka places, or worse in areas with more NJ, like parts of Tokyo for example? One good thing about Nagoya is that probably since there are very few tourists, I’ve only experienced the English menu thing once in my five years here.
2. How does your appearance affect the problem? I’m a white male, but I have dark eyes and dark hair. It seems to me that blonde people get the dumb gaijin treatment a bit more than I do. And I know blonde women a lot of creepy/annoying male attention. How different is it for Asian or African NJ, for example? I’m only asking this out of curiosity. I think all minorities in Japan have to stand in solidarity together against all forms of discrimination.
Anyway, when you experience MAs, I think the best thing to do is say something back to them. But my problem is I’m often not prepared for them, so I can’t think of a good response quickly enough. But really tiring, though. I think if the number of immigrants increase, though, the problem will fade away after some decades. But in the meantime we should do every little thing we can do in our daily lives to try and broaden people’s minds. In history, unjust structures very rarely go away of their own accord.
Sir, Your article, which I just read for the first time, is incredibly well-layered and its central theme very eruditely and descriptively captured. It describes the essence of the leash placed upon us for choosing to live, stay,be effective in Japanese society and show some level of respect. Indeed, I have observed that my J mother-in-law’s interaction with her J daughter revolves around constant microagressions as do many JHS,HS and workplace relationships between Japanese, one would note from experience.
It is ever present and I would go as far as to say is the oil which gets people cowed sufficiently to do things not only troublesome but also against self-interest. It is the cane of Japan. With such eloquence and thought, you enable both closure and resistance development. Your eloquence leads to hope and in the future as enough people escape “don’t give-a-shititis”, movement which your pen elects you to lead.
Wow-thank you. I’m ready.
As foreigners from non-microaggressive based cultures, thus aware of perspective, we still notice. Many Japanese I might suggest, have gone past caring into not noticing. That’s how endemic and damaging this process is, I might say.
— I’m just impressed that yesterday it was back in the Top Ten Most Read Articles on the Japan Times Online again, more than two years after being first published. Thanks for reading!
My favorite aspect of discriminatory microagressions is “gomi bunbetsu” (garbage separation). I can’t even remember how many times I have been chastised all over Japan, from inaka in Kumamoto-ken to big cities like Kyoto, Nagoya and Yokohama (yes, I lived all over the place in Japan!) about not separating my garbage the right way. When I protested that the at fault was not the gaijin family (i.e. we), and even showed the neighbor pictures of the Japanese person throwing their garbage in the wrong place, or on the wrong day, or without signing their name on the garbage bags (that was the rule in inaka Kyushu), I did receive the immediate and mandatory “moshi wake arimasen”s (preceded or not by “taihen,” depending on the person), but that person never talked to us ever again. I guess I overstepped my gaijin boundaries instead of admitting my mistake, which, in turn, shamed my interlocutor… I must admit that I ended up feeling bad for challenging that person…
So I was thinking that with Japan’s declining/aging population that J-society would lay-off the racial superiority arrogance long enough to let us NJ wipe their geriatric bottoms for them, but now I’m not so sure. In the face of a declining population, and a refusal to accept immigration, the Japanese have realized that they may well preserve the myth of their racial homogeneity with all the racial arrogance they carry with it by passing the ‘entitlement’ to be racist onto their robots!
BBC’s RW-H meets a Japanese robot with AI. It micro-aggresses him by laughing at his ‘poor Japanese’. Research money well spent then? There’s more. The robot’s designer asks him if he tried a ‘negative’ conversation, because the robot will get angry just like real (Japanese?) people do. Great, they’ve developed a robot that can’t take constructive criticism and reacts hysterically if you point out that it’s racist.
A total Galapagos product that will have no market outside of Japan.
This is the future.
And while I’m on the subject of Japan’s robots, ever noticed how many of them are designed to customer service/front of store roles in the manner of the myth of the traditionally ‘subservient’ Japanese woman? I guess that if real women won’t stay at home and have babies voluntarily, then they’ll have to forced into the role of ‘baby-making machines’ by replacing them in the workplace with artificial women who don’t talk back (except to NJ! These robots have really been well designed to fill women’s perceived level in the bullying J-social hierarchy).
I’m not really qualified to make any kind of comment here, but here are my observations for what it’s worth.
1) call them “microaggressions”, “culturally bound assumptions”, or plain old rudeness, I think the fact that they are so commonly reported by foreigners in Japan means they exist and have a negative impact on the mental health and well being of NJ in Japan.
2) BOTH the Japanese and primarily North American and European cultures have symbiotically manufactured and nurtured the notion of Japanese excellence and uniqueness since the opening of the country to foreign trade, alongside the ensuing westernization of the country in the early Meiji period (from around 1868). Because Japan was so insular before this time the unprecedented changes of the Meiji period have produced a rupture between traditional (native) and modern (western) cultures in the Japanese psyche.
3) This rupture seems to have been reinforced by the Japanese’s failed attempt at national superiority in the East during the Pacific War. The psychological dissonance between pride and humility as a result of this period remains embedded in older generations (who will, more often than not, indoctrinate their offspring with the same extreme dichotomous thinking).
4) THEREFORE….could these examples, my favorite the old chestnut “he doesn’t use chopsticks” (note in my example the speaker does not address the listener directly), “you write kanji so well” (writing at the level of a ten year old, hence the implicit aim to infantilize), be an expression of this dissonance? Let’s face it, if you are a white man in Japan you MUST be a North American. That being the case YOU represent the very first occupying force in Japan (if you exclude all ancient migration from the near continent of course). And yet YOU are also the benefactor who provided Japan with the means to become the great economic superpower of the 20th century in East Asia (and one of the main players in the world for that matter).
5) That being the case, the comments (almost always focused on establishing your (presupposed) cultural naivety) are being used as a last recourse toward protecting the precious few items left in Japan’s ‘cultural’ reserve. In the face of rampant globalization and a dwindling of their former economic prowess, these comments and attitudes express not a sense of certainty and refined dignity in traditional, indigenous culture (which is their overt intention), but rather the fragility of the myth, the myth of uniqueness and excellence.
6) Therefore, when you are subjected to such behavior, it might best be regarded as the fading death rattle emerging from a fragile sense of loss.
Either that, or they’re just being tw#$s, and I’m far too jet-lagged to be typing this nonsense.
— Thanks for your considered take. Regarding #5, this stuff happened even when Japan’s economic prowess was at its peak. So I would discount the loss of it as a factor.
Regardless of society, people engage in microaggressions until they’re made aware of how they hurt others. In Japan’s case, I would focus on what gets in the way of NJ making the microaggressors aware of how microaggressions hurt NJ. And part of that for me is that sometimes NJ can be their own worst enemies.
Thanks for the reply Debito, ans well done on the blog it’s one of the best IMHO.
As for (5) above, I see your point that the sense of loss can’t account for the hostility towards foreigners, because that hostility has been evident way before the Meiji restoration. I guess what I was searching for was the notion that the dynamic between being preeminent in both soft power and (faded) economic power on the one had, and yet subordinate to the US in bilateral security relations on the other, has exacerbated these resentments felt by ordinary citizens. Look at the anger and resentment about the US military presence on Okinawa. The onslaught of globalization, whilst bringing a range of benefits to the affluent, urban middle classes, has permanently eroded the foundations of what was formerly a communal, agricultural based society that emphasised the significance of work in harmony with the landscape and nature. North America is no more to blame for the homogenisation of Japanese culture than the Japanese themselves. But it’s precisely that homogenisation as a result of globalization that has isolated the individual, replaced meaningful employment with increasingly low paid, low skilled work for faceless corporations. I get the sense that the rift between tradition and modernity has widened in this increasingly homogeneous, frenetically consumeristic society. This psychological rift probably intersects with the dissonance felt by the post war generation between foreign and indigenous. Hence a fragile state of irredeemable cultural erosion, relentless consumption of “modern” products (in essence “western”), and a keen sense of utter dependency on an erstwhile foe. So to reiterate, the passive aggressive comments about cultural naivety are, to my mind, a method for securing distance from the “other” (ostensibly the “west”), whilst asserting the primacy of the indigenous culture. Note the comments rarely focus on foreign or modern objects. They tend to emphasize the supposed cultural uniqueness of TRADITIONAL Japanese culture. To argue against this or to try and “prove” cultural expertise is missing the point entirely. YOU, Mr Gaijin san, are a cipher for the myriad of resentments Japanese feel daily, yet YOU must be tolerated because deep in every Japanese subconscious the castle walls have long since crumbled. And there isn’t a great deal either party can do to reverse the course of history. (I hope you all appreciate I’m making broad and sweeping statements that can’t possibly account for the complexity of race relations in Japan).
— You’re looking for something exceptional in Japan to justify its microaggressions. I wouldn’t. I’m a universalist, looking for how the racialization processes are similar everywhere even if the outcomes can differ in specific societies. The basic difference in Japan’s case is that people are cowed into believing that they can’t change the system, and can’t push back against the microaggressions that happen in every society — and that goes double for NJ and Visible Minorities who even police themselves.
Also, I hope your readings take you on a path away from seeing Japan as something “harmonious” until Western consumerism despoiled it. That’s essentially blaming the West for Japan’s behavior and system, and justifying Japanese behavior you portray as, to paraphrase, “taking it out on the West” for its losses. It’s not that simple, and teetering dangerously into the genre of Nihonjinron.
Read up more on Japan’s historical narratives. Start with Carol Gluck’s “Japan’s Modern Myths”, and proceed to Oguma Eiji’s “A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-Images”.
Debito san, thanks for taking the time to read my ideas and reply. I really appreciate it as it’s an interesting topic. I’d like to respond and clarify what I was trying to say, as perhaps I wasn’t particularly straightforward in my presentation.
“You’re looking for something exceptional in Japan to justify its microaggressions”
I’m not really trying to “justify” anything, I’m simply trying to understand the motivation behind the behaviour. At no point did I approve of racism in Japanese society, although on reflection there is perhaps more potential to reduce racism. Nevertheless, it will linger for many decades if not centuries in Japan, as with other more “progressive” cultures that have had greater success in tackling racism, racism still exists today in those countries, and is expressed in a variety ugly manifestations. As for “exceptionalism”, if you re-read my post you’ll notice I actually denied on a number of occasions the notion that Japanese culture is exceptional. They have a unique history and culture, but that can be said of any culture.
“I hope your readings take you on a path away from seeing Japan as something “harmonious” until Western consumerism despoiled it. That’s essentially blaming the West for Japan’s behavior and system, and justifying Japanese behavior you portray as, to paraphrase, “taking it out on the West” for its losses”
I didn’t say pre-modern Japan was “harmonious”, I said it was self isolated and insular. I didn’t attribute “blame” to any one nation (including Japan) for the homogenisation of Japan, as I made clear when I said “North America is no more to blame for the homogenisation of Japanese culture than the Japanese themselves”. If we dispense with the context of foreign relations and differences in culture we lose the whole context for analysing the behaviour in the first place. Without understanding the motivations for certain behaviours there is no hope of modifying and creating permanent change in attitudes.
To paraphrase my argument as “taking it out on the West” [for it’s losses] is unfair, and as you say so yourself “not that simple”. To reiterate my point, there is a peculiar intersection between the subordination of Japan to the US in both security and political relations (whilst being a pre-eminent world power by virtue of that subordination) on the one hand, with the fracture of traditional life by both modernity and westernisation on the other. Whilst maintaining the (inherited) belief that one’s nation and culture is unique and superior (in terms of culture), the Japanese have adopted a perspective of obligatory acquiescence towards the influx of “foreign” entities (i.e not just people, but concepts etc). Hence cognitive dissonance: the psychological state produced by acting in a manner that is incompatible with one’s belief system. For example, giving a foreigner a set of hasi when you have been repeatedly told from an early age such piffle as “these foreigners can’t use chopsticks you know, they can only use forks and knives [implication: they’re daft foreigners, we are refined/cultured]”).This is not as simple as “taking it out on the west” because it involves a whole set of intersecting factors that influence behaviour, and it will not always be apparent to the individual what is motivating their racist behaviour because all of these responses are reflexive, spontaneous, and scripted (from a very young age). The change you’re advocating (one which I wholeheartedly endorse), is exceptionally difficult for the Japanese of a certain age (and likewise for younger adults) because they have already developed lasting and powerful schemas, which are notoriously difficult to modify beyond a certain age. And given the fact these schemas relate to the foreign entity (whose real aspects and values are at best dimly understood via facile, stereotypical representations in mass culture etc), the opportunity for reflection and integration of new knowledge is obscured by the systems of maintenance within the culture, which, by nature of systematic indoctrination from birth, effectively prohibit overt rejection of widespread, socially reinforced attitudes. In addition, given the Japanese preference for consensus rather than (real) discussion, the rejection of racism brings the very real risk of ostracisation, which in Japanese society, as you’re no doubt well aware of, can be a fate worse than death. These determinants cannot be omitted from the argument because they inform the very psychological mechanisms that maintain racist beliefs.
To reiterate, I DO NOT CONDONE these attitudes, nor do I agree with the notion that those subjected to racism should simply grin and bear it. I’m merely pointing out that the solution cannot be to simply say “change” when the subject has scant liberty to do so, especially when there is no obvious, immediate rewards in taking such a risk. Yes they of course have, in theory at least, freedom to change, but the culturally bound determinants of racist behaviour, in addition to the dissonance felt towards the foreigner (and more generally the ‘west’), have conspired to make real changes in belief systems intolerable to the vast majority of Japanese. To reiterate, to mention all of this is neither to justify, rationalise, nor endorse any of it, but rather to try and search out the root of the problem and the conditions that govern it. Without an understanding of the root of the problem no one can be expected to be able to offer an appropriate, targeted interventions at every level of society, be it early education or public campaigns. Making the entirely reasonable protestation “I deserve better treatment” is likely to fail because it alone cannot circumvent the powerful systems of social compliance on the one hand with the deeply ingrained prejudice towards foreign, non-native entities on the other. To dismiss the complexity of these factors by labelling them as either “justification” or “rationalisation” is unfair and inaccurate because it implies this argument seeks to maintain or reinforce the status quo, when, as I have outlined above, this is simply not the case.
(PS thanks for the reading recommendations, I’m familiar with “Japan’s Modern Myths”, I’d be grateful if you could clarify how it is relevant to my arguments above, many thanks.)
— Um, yes you did say what I said you said.
This time you said:
“I didn’t say pre-modern Japan was “harmonious””
Last time you said:
“The onslaught of globalization, whilst bringing a range of benefits to the affluent, urban middle classes, has permanently eroded the foundations of what was formerly a communal, agricultural based society that emphasised the significance of work in HARMONY with the landscape and nature.” [emphasis added].
This time you said:
“I’m not really trying to “justify” anything…”, and “To paraphrase my argument as “taking it out on the West” [for it’s losses] is unfair.”
Last time you said:
“I get the sense that the rift between tradition and modernity has widened in this increasingly homogeneous, frenetically consumeristic society. This psychological rift probably intersects with the dissonance felt by the post war generation between foreign and indigenous.So to reiterate, the passive aggressive comments about cultural naivety are, to my mind, a method for securing distance from the “other” (ostensibly the “west”), whilst asserting the primacy of the indigenous culture. Note the comments rarely focus on foreign or modern objects. They tend to emphasize the supposed cultural uniqueness of TRADITIONAL Japanese culture. To argue against this or to try and “prove” cultural expertise is missing the point entirely. YOU, Mr Gaijin san, are a cipher for the myriad of resentments Japanese feel daily, yet YOU must be tolerated because deep in every Japanese subconscious the castle walls have long since crumbled.”
You are essentially making the argument that Japan’s feeling of loss of traditional Japanese culture is due to Japan’s adoption of a Western, consumeristic society (or as you’re insinuating this time, having it forced upon them; as you put it: “the Japanese have adopted a perspective of obligatory acquiescence towards the influx of “foreign” entities”). In other words, either way it’s the West’s fault, and it’s no wonder Japanese microaggress foreigners.
It’s just the way these poor people have been programmed. (Or again, as you put it: “all of these responses are reflexive, spontaneous, and scripted (from a very young age)”.)
If I’m missing your point, then it’s because that’s the point you’re making. Since I have to take the trouble to quote you back, there is a degree of disingenuity and backpedalling happening here. Thanks for the discussion, but I think I’ll leave it to others now.
— This is Debito. For once, I’m putting my comment at the top. The author of the post below started the “discussion” off like a college student seeking knowledge, but eventually revealed himself a seasoned academic who has too much time on his hands. Instead of having a discussion where we seek to solve a problem or come up with viable public policy, it becomes a little intellectual wrestling match full of clouds of fog and accusations of unfair interpretation (even when shown his own quotes). I’ve played these kinds of debate games before with some academics, and found their strategy is to wear down the opponent with a couple new points to answer for each point raised. Usually this type of debater claims victory by default, because everything they raised in an ever-intensifying shower of pedantry was not answered. But it usually wastes the earnest engager’s time, and is only exciting to readers if they like watching Chess games. I’m just not going to play. — Debito.
I’m sorry I thought we were having a discussion and I have been nothing but civil and cordial in what I have written. I get the impression you don’t want to engage fully with my argument and I sense you’re irritated because it doesn’t fit in with your notion of how racism should be tackled in Japan. I get the impression you won’t publish my response again because your counter arguments haven’t actually refuted anything I have actually said, but have rather, stripped the original arguments of nuance and assigned value judgements not present in the original text. For what it’s worth, here is my response.
1) “working in harmony with nature” is not the same as saying the whole society was in perfect harmony. You’ve once again misrepresented what I’ve actually said. The meaning you are ascribing to what I have written is “working with nature, and [society] being in (perfect) harmony”. This is not what I wrote.
2) “In other words, either way it’s the West’s fault, and it’s no wonder Japanese microaggress foreigners”
If you re-read the text the argument does not attribute ‘blame’ to one cause, as the scenario is far more complex than that. Once again, you’ve misrepresented the argument. Please clarify where I said “it’s all the west’s fault”. If you reread carefully you’ll note I actually state the causes of racism in Japan are multiple, intersecting and dynamic, not simply “it’s the fault of the West”. Which is to say, the tension inherent in US-Japan relations is not the result of one nation but the whole course of history in the region. You have projected a sympathetic viewpoint towards racism in Japan that does not appear in my original text.
3) “It’s just the way these poor people have been programmed.”
Once again you’ve added the value judgement “these poor people”, which was not in my text, which suggests you haven’t made a careful reading of the text, and are continue to project meanings onto it. We might question whether this is a genuine oversight or a lazy attempt to undermine the credibility of the argument rather than engage with the argument itself. At no point have I expressed the notion that the Japanese should receive sympathy regarding racism. I’ve merely advocated understanding the root of the behaviour so that it can be tackled more effectively. The implication of your paraphrase “it’s just” also implies the original text was attempting to minimise the significance of racist attitudes. Again, the original text makes no such assertion, nor is there a subtext to that effect.
4) “If I’m missing your point, then it’s because that’s the point you’re making”
This has no logical meaning whatsoever. You can’t assert the meaning of something on the condition that you have not grasped the meaning in the first place.
5) “Since I have to take the trouble to quote you back, there is a degree of disingenuity and backpedalling happening here”.
I’m really sorry I have caused you the trouble of quoting me back, I was under the impression that a discussion was taking place and that this necessarily requires some reference to what has been written. Could you please tell me how I have been disingenuous? Furthermore, could you please clarify how having recourse to quote text establishes dis-ingenuity? I’m surprised that I’ve stimulated such hostility despite being nothing but civil and polite. This is all rather ironic considering you are championing a form of freedom: freedom from [racist abuse], yet you now categorically won’t permit freedom to [express an opinion].
6) You named dropped Japan’s Modern Myths and assumed I didn’t know the text. It’s fine to name drop! (everyone does) but in doing so we must demonstrate how it is relevant to the matter in question, otherwise it is no more than a name drop. Again, you’ve still not established the relevance of Gluck’s arguments to this one.
I came to the site and replied in all sincerity, trying to explore the topic, and was open minded to whatever explanations others have to offer. It seems odd that you won’t engage any further with the argument because my view doesn’t cohere with your somewhat militant insistence that the one view of the subject (which obligatorily dispenses with an analysis how racist attitudes are formed and reinforced in this particular context) is the only valid one. I fail to see the logic in the idea that in order to tackle a problem the root causes may be ignored. That’s like trying to find a cure for a disease without first studying the aetiology. Nevertheless, I sincerely wish you the best luck with your project, and for what it’s worth, I certainly did not intend on provoking animosity.
PS Anybody wanting a thoughtful and funny take on traveling in Japan (hence frequently confronting what we are talking about) please do check out Alan Booths books “The Roads to Sata” and “Looking for the lost”. He tells it straight IMHO.
you went in deep. Ive had the same thoughts, as to where all of this comes from, but Ive never reached any conclusion. For ex. your explanation would eventually deserve a study and self reflection, then a conclusion, but there is no conclusion to be reached in Japan as to why such non sense continues, instead its just move the move the goal post again and again and a new excuse, for the behaviors you described.
Thanks for reading my reply Tim. I’ve limited experience actually living in Japan, and I really haven’t read enough on Japanese society and psychology to really have an objective opinion. I sincerely hope people can enjoy living in Japan and not let this effect them too much. I also think other countries are far more racist and their behaviour far more unpleasant than the Japanese. So I guess it’s important to have a balanced view and never take it personally, because it can’t be personal if they don’t know you personally!
— Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that racism is a matter of degree, therefore… This lets Japan off the hook. Racism is something to be combatted in whatever form wherever. It’s not a comparative.
Yes, I would have to agree with Dr Debito: the ” racism is everywhere” excuse doesnt make the Japan experience more endurable. You need to get some of the venom firsthand, then make a comparison. . For ex. I was recently at a restaurant, and there was an Oyaji drinking party going on. One of them walked past my table, some intrusive rude staring took place, then he returned to his party. Upon his return, I could here many derogatory and complementary comments about halfu and gaijin. Its like my presence was enough to kick off the diatribe with loosened thoughts and mouths due to the alcohol. Kind of uncomfortable so I left.
I also have problems with tolerating “mild degrees” of racism, because tolerating that is nothing more than an invitation to further escalation.
Well, there’s also the argument that backlash against “mild racism” is exactly what causes escalation as a form of counter backlash, but seriously, don’t buy into that. It’s just an argument designed to keep you defenceless at the bottom of society.
I agree, but you must choose your battles wisely, with a strategy.
For ex. in the above ex. I posted, it would of not benefited me to challenge said oyaji during their drunken mood; it would of only emboldened them more, and provided for entertainment for other customers at my expense. In this case it was best to leave. Had I been a member of that party (been in that situation also) I would of reacted differently, but this time I had the freedom of movement, so I exercised it.
The strategy I speak of is knowing that Japanese do not like to loose face in front of others, they could care less about your feelings. With that in mind, I will confront obnoxious and rudeness with the cold indifference that comes from experience knowing the outcome, his/her humiliation instead of mine..
I agree. All racism is racism. There is no sliding scale. You have to choose your battles; if you stood up to every single incidence of racism, you’d be perpetually stressed, angry, and likely quickly find yourself in a confrontation involving the police. And that’s not going to end well for the NJ.
Once my wife became aware of the countless daily micro aggressions and incidence of racism, she greatly appreciated my ability to let most minor cases slide so as not to ruin everyone’s day (mine, hers, our family’s).
But there are times to put your foot down.
Just my anecdotal evidence, but being able to afford to go to nicer places than 2 hour nomihodai chain restaurants and such made a big difference. The customers at these places aren’t the brightest, and have little ability to filter what they say or understand the consequences of their actions. But when I started making enough money to stay in private hotels and use the bars at 5 star hotels for my drinking sessions and lunches, the incidence of racism displayed towards me dropped significantly. I do not believe the patrons of these places are any less racist than anywhere else, but rather that they are better able to imagine that a confrontation might not end well for them (and having me arrested by the police wouldn’t fix their broken nose).
My comment wasn’t aimed at your strategy in that particular case (retreat is a legitimate form of protest when done wisely), but at the notion that racism in Japan is generally less mortal than racism in the West and therefore excusable or tolerable. It’s of course not.
Absolutely. There is a huge disconnect with many who have never experienced Japans brand of racism. Those of us who have experienced it can bridge that disconnect, whereas with others, the bridge leads to nowhere due to ignorance. Please also understand, my strategy never involves violence, it just means I dont get the shakes or nerves when confronting racist behaviors anymore; I know what works and what doesnt and Im not concerned with winning anyones approval.