Here they go again! The New York Times, for years, has persisted in putting trivialized pieces like this one on their front page. I recall one about farmers in a remote area who couldn’t find wives and I recall another about the high-pitched sing-songy voices of elevator women in Japan, who greet riders when they board. I can imagine that the writer, Hiroko Tabuchi, who is Western educated and urbane, might see this kind of article as helping the cause of Japanese women. But the broader effect is that it makes readers think that Japan is an odd place where people do strange things. It prevents the Western audience from coming to grips with the fact that Japan is a major economic, technological and increasingly military power. Why doesn’t the Times frontpage stories about the real significance of Japan? Why do they insist on making it a caricature?
Japan’s Top Voice: High, Polite and on the Phone
At the All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition, thousands of office
workers compete for recognition as a paragon of courtesy, pleasantry and
It rings. The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers has begun.
“How may I help you today?” a young contestant in a checked vest and skirt uniform says in Japanese after she picks up the phone, her hand visibly shaking. She chirps through the salutations in the high-pitched voice preferred by Japanese bosses for decades. She nods and bows, smiles and then grimaces in what appears to be nervousness and sheer effort. “I’m always at your service,” she says.
For over a half-century, office workers from companies across Japan have gathered each year to battle it out for the title of Japan’s best phone answerer.
The competition, which is dominated by women, is an impressive showcase of feminine politeness and eloquence, but it is also a reminder of the clerical positions Japanese women — often referred to as “office ladies,” or “O.L.’s” — still serve in Japanese offices.
This year, a record 12,613 office workers from across Japan sought to compete in the national contest. Sixty finalists made it, all but four of them women.
Now in its 52nd year, the contest has surged in popularity in recent years. That is a puzzling development in a digital age dominated by emails and instant messaging and one in which Japanese women — ever so slowly — are finding more opportunities in the workplace.
Organizers of the event, which now draws over twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners.
The rise of outsourcing and professional call centers, now almost a 700 billion yen ($6.85 billion) industry in Japan, has created a new industry based on professional phone answering, they say.
“Opportunities for voice communication are decreasing every year, yet the number of contestants keeps increasing. That shows Japan’s commitment to phone manners will never fade,” Masayuki Yamamura, president of NTT East, one of the event’s corporate sponsors, said at the opening ceremony.
Formal phone answering is serious business in Japan, with many rules intended to head off offensive or awkward moments. A search on Amazon’s Japanese website found more than 60 books specifically on phone manners, and dozens more on business etiquette in general. Most appeared to be aimed at women, like “How to Talk Like a Workplace Beauty.”
A polite office worker picks up calls during the first or second rings; if, for unavoidable reasons, the caller is left waiting for three rings or more, an apology is in order. The conversation itself is carried out in a formal, honorific spoken form of language — peppered with exclamations like “I’m horrified to ask this request, but …” At the end of the call, the receptionist must listen for the caller to hang up before putting down the receiver. Hanging up first is a serious faux pas.
Some experts explicitly tell women to speak in a higher voice than usual to sound feminine and energetic. “Think of the musical scale — do, re, mi, fa — and imagine speaking in fa,” says Akiko Mizuki, a business manner expert on AllAbout.com.
“It’s very difficult to be polite but effortlessly so. If you sound like a robot, you can’t put the caller at ease,” said Keiko Nagashima, manager at a call center for SBI Securities in Tokyo, which has been sending workers to compete in the competition for the last five years.
Ms. Nagashima’s protégé, Mika Otani, trained six months for the competition by writing out sample answers and practicing in front of a mirror to make sure she was properly opening up her larynx and articulating. But Ms. Otani, 26, does not plan to simply follow
tradition. She considers herself a modern woman and shuns the high-pitched voice. As more women have taken on professional positions in recent years, she said, there has been a backlash against overly squeaky voices.
“I work at a financial institution, so I don’t want to sound like a cartoon character,” Ms. Otani said before the competition.