Monday, April 20, 2009

Elevator Etiquette

There are many unwritten rules of behaviour in any culture and Japan probably has more than most. Something that you've got to be mindful of is your rank compared to those around you. The surest indicator of where you are is your age. When meeting new people, you'll find that one of the first things they want to know about you is how old you are. You might consider this impolite, especially if you're female, but it's important for Japanese people to know whether you rank above them or below them. The language they use with you and the way they treat you will change significantly depending on this.

You might be thinking: "Yeah, it's better not to swear in front of your elders" or "That's true, I speak more casually with people my own age". It's much more than this though. In Japanese, every single verb, the terms of address and the sentence structure in general will change drastically based on the difference of a few years. It's not just age that can determine your social rank: being a teacher or being a guest will also raise your status.

When in the company of those above you, it's not just your language that has to change. In many social situations there are proper procedures that should be followed. One of these concerns the proper conduct in that cramped and awkward space: the elevator.

Luckily, a quick search on google reveals a website explaining it all. It starts by showing a comic strip, illustrating the problem:
In Japan, comic strips start in the top right and finish in the bottom left. The company director is about to get on the elevator, when all of a sudden, the young and overly keen worker shouts, "Wait!" and charges onto the elevator, bowling him over.
Tsk Tsk. Kids these days. No doubt she's part of the graduate intake.
Needless to say, this is not the proper etiquette.
Never fear though. A kindly old man is ready to explain things to the troubled young lady.

"Since there are already people on the elevator, you should let your seniors get on first, and you should get on last. If you're a new employee, you should stand next to the controls."

"Ah, I see. What should I do if there weren't people already on the elevator?"

"You should hold the door open, say "dozo", and allow your seniors to enter the elevator. It's then best if you stand next to the controls and operate the "close" and "open" buttons appropriately. You should try to avoid turning your back towards the people in the elevator. Instead, try to turn your back towards the wall."

Ahh. Don't you feel comforted now that you know exactly what you're supposed to do?

Hold-your-hand guidance like this is quite common. I've seen it a lot. Using one's own initiative isn't a typical trait of the Japanese worker. They like to be told exactly what's appropriate.
In general, whether it be an elevator, a meeting room, or a private room at a restaurant, the further towards the back you are, the higher your status. Yakuza bosses are always as far away from the door as possible - it's the safest place.
In the case of the elevator, the proper positioning depending on your social rank can be seen here: The door is on the right and the controls are at the bottom right. The highest ranking person goes in position 1 and the lowest ranking person goes in position 9. The rest arrange themselves as shown.
A few shops employ people to stand at the controls of the elevators and operate them for customers. I remember that one of the most famous bookshops in Tokyo, 紀伊国屋, has a particularly cramped elevator and a lady squeezes herself right up against the control panel, taking customers up and down all day. The trip is punctuated by her commentary: "going up", "going down", "this is the third floor", "please be careful, I'm closing the doors" etc. It would drive me mad to have a job like that.

I may do another post at some point on the proper positioning for when you're in a business meeting in Japan. Could be useful for those of you who come on business trips.

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  1. Doesn't this kind of thing make you batty sometimes? I generally like order, but elevator rank?

  2. Hi, thanks for the comment.

    I used to think it was pretty crazy but I’m not that bothered about it these days. I’m often wondering what cultural blunder I’m committing in Japan, so when I’m in the elevator, it’s nice to know that I’m up to speed. These days, I’m getting increasingly concerned at how irritated I get by people who get on the elevator to go down one floor!!! We’re on the top level in our building and these lazy people cause the journey to take twice as long!!!

    Maybe I need to relax a bit…

  3. Interesting stuff.

    Here in Thailand I've been intrigued that rather than dividing people into the two large groups of the sexes as we commonly do (e.g. "Ladies and Gentlemen") they too use age ("Nong and Pi" for younger and older, respectively).

    When calling to get the attention of someone you don't know, rather than saying "Excuse me, Madam" you would in effect say "Excuse me, Elder". Cries of "Nong!" resonate with much the feeling of shouting "Garçon!" at a waiter who is an assumed social subservient - although of course without the gender descriptor.

    You might find this the antithesis of sexism and the height of enlightened modern thinking, but talking to people here it seems that being reincarnated as a woman would be considered worse than coming back as a lower mammal, perhaps equal to a dog if you turned out particularly pretty (and therefore a nice person - they are of course one and the same).

    In fact, whilst I can think of few things more laudable than respecting your elders, I would suggest that in a meritocracy it is easier to segue from gender descriptors implying status/rank to becoming neutral (and in some cases done away with, as in the case with "Actor" in US English) than for age-based descriptors - no doubt partially due to the "I was bullied as a first-year student, so I'm going to bully the new first-year students" mentality.

    I understand that seating position in cars in Japan is also related to status, and is perhaps the opposite of what we might expect... perhaps another diagram is in order? ;o)

    I'll leave you with this reminder that while a lot of the hard rules regarding social conduct in the UK died with the Victorians who loved it so, you may be familiar with at least one situation whereby correct order is still rigorously enforced:

  4. "but talking to people here it seems that being reincarnated as a woman would be considered worse than coming back as a lower mammal"


    If you look at the website I linked to, you will see some clues about seating positions for cars. Might do that later, and meeting rooms, later. ;)

    That video is so your style. I actually had the same idea and wrote similar content in my Japanese class a few years ago. I can't remember what the theme was, but for some crazy reason I came up with that. Our compositions were posted at the entrance to the building. Not sure if mine made it - I don't think having a lesson in urinal etiquette in broken Japanese was that popular.

    Joke slayed.

  5. Wrightak, There's one glaring error in the number diagram. Only 9 people in a Tokyo elevator? come off it!

    I've added your blog to my blogroll on ALT Susono. It would be cool if you could do the same.


  6. Too bad I can't read Kanji, the comics look great!

  7. 有難うございます! This is really a great help to our group especially for our business presentation... Domo!

  8. There should be silence in the elevator and people should keep distance to each other if possible and not collide each other.