Monday, February 15, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about business

Every once in a while, my Japanese class delivers an irritating reminder of just how ingrained sexism is in language. Of course, this is at least as true in English as in Japanese -- it's nearly impossible to talk about a person in English without using gendered pronouns like "he" or "she". Japanese, thankfully, generally doesn't have this problem, but it has its own set of issues.

I have the misfortune to be taking "business Japanese" this semester, and today's scenario was a discussion between a V.P. and some subordinates. When men and women are expected to say the lines differently, the teacher writes the changes on the board (usually, though not always, the lines in the textbook are the "male" versions). Usually, these are just small modifications to sentence endings; casual Japanese has distinct "male" and "female" speech styles, though as far as I can tell it's acceptable in modern Japanese for anyone to use the "male" style, or something in between. Today, though, we had a particularly egregious change: in the textbook, the V.P. referred to a subordinate with the familiar suffix -kun, but the teacher asked the female students to use the more respectful -san, and when a student used -kun anyway she was "corrected". Apparently it's disrespectful for a woman to use a familiar term of address to (presumably) a man, even if he's working under her.

Of course, I don't know how representative our teacher's opinions are, or what would be considered acceptable in a real modern Japanese business. I suspect that, just as during my stay in Japan my host family all spoke in the "male" style, there are places where these rules don't apply. But it was an interesting, and to me rather blatant, example of how sexism comes across in language, even when the subject of gender is nominally unrelated. When speaking or writing in our native language, we're often too close to see the assumptions we make, but when we take a step back they come across loud and clear. Maybe next time I'll try reading the "other side's" lines; after all, it would still show that I understood the dialogue. If I do, I'll let you know how it goes.