In a Shop: Cultural Commentary

Customer as royalty

In Japan, customers are generally treated as royalty- and shop staff bend over backward to provide polite and polished service catering to their every wish. This is a well-known feature of Japanese society, and yet it continues to amaze even foreigners who have lived in Japan for some time. The cultural patterns of shop interactions that exist in other cultures present a more horizontal relationship between customer and shop staff- the customer provides payment and the vendor provides goods or services. Both parties have their roles and responsibilities, and if one of them does not ‘play their role’ properly something feels amiss.


One of the manifestations of this difference is seen in greetings. In Japan, typically only the shop staff are required to greet the other party. Staff typically greet customers as they enter a store, and give a send-off greeting or thank them as they leave. The customer is not required to do or say anything in response. In France, for example, if you forget to say hello to the shopkeeper in a bakery for example, odds are that he or she will repeat their greeting while looking at you strangely, until you greet them back . After all, staff are not “serving robots,” so they deserve your respect. British respondent Kevin even notes (page 41) that “When I was living in rural France, I soon learned to greet everyone, including other customers, when entering a shop. “ In that situation, everyone present in the shop is considered to be a member of a small community of human beings who are equals. It so happens that a financial transaction occurs between the shop staff and one customer at a time, but this is far from being the only feature of this situation.

Friendly = Polite?

There are also norms with regard to the kind of tone staff and customers use toward each other. Canadian respondent Sarah says on p.41 “Sales staff in Canada often believe that greeting customers in a friendly, more casual manner leads to a better customer relationship. So, many retail workers welcome customers with a friendly greeting and try to engage them in conversation.” The emphasis here is on “friendly” and “casual”. This seems to be the case especially in North America and in Australia and New Zealand. It is a fact that French shop staff can sometimes ignore customers (OSF no.10, p.85: “The shop staff also (greet customers)… when they are not engaged in discussion with a colleague.”) They also “do not hesitate to give personalized advice and joke with their customers even if they are not regulars”, but their interaction style cannot be said to be casual. Horizontal, equal relationships in France do not necessarily involve being “casual”, that is, using relaxed language forms and a friendly tone of conversation.

Missing the human touch

In this part of the Ibunka Survey, several respondents summed up the service in Japan as being efficient and “top-class” in terms of attending to customer needs, but at the same time somewhat impersonal. As Ravi, the Indian respondent on page 42 puts it: “The service is impeccable, efficient and fast, but also a little cold.” He also uses the expression “robot-like” to describe the typical Japanese shop clerk. Respondents from many countries echo this assessment. French respondent Catherine describes her reverse culture shock in a French shop on page 43, and American respondent David his own reverse culture shock in an American shop (OSF no.4). But almost all the respondents who live in Japan (or Japanese people who have lived abroad) also express a feeling of  loneliness or alienation in Japanese service encounters. They wish for a little more “human touch” and a little less conformity with the “manual”. Some describe little strategies they use to re-establish some aspects of such equality, like the Japanese respondent in OSF: “In Japan, the shop staff always see you out with a thank-you. If you say it back, they say it again. This can result in endless loops. Leaving without responding to them used to make me very uncomfortable. Now, I’ve learned how to say thank you at the same time on my way out the door!”

Some non-Western cultures are also discussed in this unit, which reflect staff behavior which, from the “customer is king” Japanese perspective, might seem rather forward or over-personal.  Irish respondent Gus describes his experience of shopping in Morocco and comments “I guess in a culture where you haggle over prices, personal conversation is a good way to begin.” (p.43) OSF respondents in No. 6 and 7 describe the Chinese shop clerks they had interactions with as pushy and “clingy” and one describes how “they (the shop staff) openly showed their disappointment when I didn’t buy anything.” 

References and further reading

If students are interested in extending this topic further, you could direct them to look at online reviews of shops and restaurants for interesting comments regarding “good” and “bad” service.  It is quite fascinating (and a heads-up for future overseas travel) how a certain kind of interaction can be construed as polite in one culture and utterly rude in another.