Winning and losing the compliment game


My, I’m impressed with the way you read. Your eyes just sail across the text like a clipper ship backed by fair winds and bound for a friendly port. Even when you blink, you don’t slow down. Even when I type challenging words like “panegyric” or “ibetyourbreathcouldkillahorse,” you barely pause on the page. What talent. What skill. How mighty you are.

The problem is, I am not so certain that I mean this. I might actually think you are a bottlehead, with eyes that only a mother frog could love.

You see, I’ve lived in Japan for many years, and here the dishing out of compliments is a kind of game, one with multiple twists and turns. So I am no longer sure if I am saying what I mean or am just mean in what I am saying. It’s a hard knot to unravel. But — as I know you’re so skillful at such things — why don’t we think this through together?

Japanese typically bury guests with compliments the way Hawaiians plop on leis. This can start at a very physical level. Guests may be praised for their height, the sharpness of their nose, the color of their hair, the fullness of their bosom, the real estate value of their derriere, or anything.

“Once,” says this foreign fellow I know, “I had gas in the midst of a crowded elevator. In seconds, the air was thick enough to build a bomb shelter with. Paint began to melt from the walls. People turned wine red from gagging. But — sure enough — from the back of the elevator came the choked expression, ‘Jozu desu ne’ ” — which means, “Wow, you’re good.”

Most foreigners hear “Jozu desu ne” in two stock situations.

To start, once they blurt their first Japanese sentence, they are guaranteed to be met with a “Jozu desu ne.” This is true even if their pronunciation is closer to that of a dolphin than that of a speaker of Japanese. It is true even if they stutter and spit and accidentally bite their tongue off. It is true even if they make a slight mistake and instead of saying, “How much is the bill?” say something like, “How much is the waitress?”

The other situation deals with chopsticks. No matter if they bombsight their initial load of noodles straight down their cleavage and then cannot take hold of a single dadburned thing, they will at least manage to pick up the compliment of “Jozu desu ne.”

No Japanese, of course, takes this flattery seriously. It is intended as polite encouragement, nothing more, as if the entire nation subscribed to that Thumper maxim from “Bambi,” “Say something nice . . . or don’t say anything at all.”

Yet that’s but one level of the compliment game, a level from which most newbies in Japan never graduate. For beneath the nicety sometimes lurks a darker Thumper mentality, where the perverse philosophy is this: “Say the opposite of what you mean . . . but in a nice way.”

So, in this case, “Wow, you’re good” might actually mean, “Man, you suck.”

Japanese use this left-handed approach among themselves all the time, with most people having razor-keen fine-tuning as to the potential meaning of even the most mundane of comments.

How to respond then turns the game topsy-turvy. Faced with a compliment or congratulations, most Japanese display not just humility . . . but denial.

“I heard your son got into college! Wonderful!”

“Thanks, but I don’t know how he did it. He’s got the intelligence of a llama and the only thing he ever studies is his pillow. It’s a miracle.”

“Yeah, but Tokyo University isn’t easy.”

“You’re right. It’s probably a mistake. I’m sure they’ll be calling to tell us that any day.”

Foreigners are often slow to pick up on this. When commended for their use of chopsticks, for example, they are apt to answer with aplomb — no matter how much rice with soy sauce they have slopped across their shirt.

“Oh, it’s nothing. You see, I once ate at a Chinese restaurant back home. Plus my neighbor had a Siamese cat. Something about the Orient must have rubbed off.”

To play the game like a pro, there are two points one must never forget. First, never, ever compliment a family member in public. If you should say, “Doesn’t my wife look swell in her new dress?” everyone — including your wife — will clutch themselves over what you might have meant. Once your guests leave, your wife will then chew your ears off for being so rude to her in front of friends.

In the end, it might be better to say something more tactful, like: “Hey folks, sorry about my wife’s new dress. I hope it won’t ruin your appetite.” And your wife will never be happier.

The other point to remember is similar. Never, ever compliment your boss in front of outsiders. He might well take it as an insult and soon decide that you should be an outsider too.

Two experts exchanging praises can go something like this:

A: Your presentation was truly superb. I commend you.

B: That? Why, it was pathetic. My information was so outdated, I felt like knifing myself with shame. But your presentation! Now that was masterful!

A: Surely you’re joking. I was embarrassed to give voice to such rubbish. I wish I could be as good as you.

B: Oh, but your content was much better. I was the unworthy one.

A: No, no, it was I. In fact, most of my information was plagiarized . . . from you. I ask, how low can one get?

There you have it: the ins and outs of complimenting, Japanese-style, an art form so complex that only wise and wonderful readers like you can possibly understand.

But — please — don’t take it personally.