In Their Own Voice



  How to React to Compliments  
  School Lunch  
Formality and Informality

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How to React to Compliments by Kay (Ikei) Kobayashi

"I saw your son playing soccer very well last Saturday. He is a great, talented soccer player!" If you or your family members get compliments like this, how would you reply? If it is from my American friends, I would say "Thank you very much! He is crazy for soccer, so he practices a lot." However, if it is from my Japanese friends, I would say "Oh, no, no. He is not that great. He just had good luck last time."

Generally speaking, I think that this is how we react to compliments. We are expected to be modest, or humble. We think that modesty is a virtue and it is very important to be modest in your daily life. If someone praises us, most of us deny it, even if we think it is true. I am sure that it sounds very strange to many Americans. Even more complicated is that Japanese may think that you are a little arrogant if you don't follow the rule. Lowering yourself in front of others is our basic attitude in almost all situations in Japan. Yes, I know your son is great, but you should deny it, and talk in a modest manner!

How about my children then? I know that here in the U.S. (and many other countries), if someone gives you compliments, you must say "Thank you!" My children have been in the US for 8 years, so they think in American ways. Because of the difference in culture, I always feel that my children have too much self-confidence. I cannot help telling them to be modest, which my husband and I were told by our parents. Maybe this is why my children don't show their happy feelings in front of their friends.

For example, at the soccer game, my children's teammates show really big pleasure when they win. They scream and hug each other. On the other hand, my sons show only a simple smile and do a high-five.

When my son shot a victory goal at the final soccer tournament, his teammates hugged him and praised him. At the ceremony, his coach and his teammates offered him a champion cup. But my son hesitated to have it and he gave it to the goalie. My son thought the goalie should have the champion cup. Many people didn't understand his behavior. I immediately understood how he took care of his friends. Maybe he accepted something I told him, even though he did not notice that he was doing that. We are always afraid that we just confuse our children when we teach two different cultures, and we understand that it is not easy to cross the border of different cultures. I think that this is a good example of how two different cultures merge.

I don't know which way is better for my children. We should use modesty in several different situations. If we live in the US, you cannot be too modest and you need more self-confidence. If we go back to Japan, we will have to change our attitude. I'm curious how my children learn the American way and Japanese way, and how they digest these two cultures.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What would you say to someone who said to you, “I saw your son playing soccer very well last Saturday. He is a great, talented soccer player!” Would you say “Thank you” or “No no, he just had a lucky day.” What are you teaching your child with your reply?
  2. Which of these sentences do you agree with more:
                a. A parent’s job is to make a child feel special and good about him/herself,
                so he/she can go on to be a productive adult.
                b. Children naturally feel special and important; a parent’s job is to teach
                them to work well with others.
  3. Have you had experiences where you or friends, colleagues or family members have found a way to be “bi-cultural” – that is, to behave one way in one context and another way in a different context?
  4. What is good for society about building up children’s self-esteem? What is good for society about teaching children to be modest? Probably both are important. If you had to choose, which one of these would you say is the more important?
  5. Have you ever been surprised by someone’s modesty (in a situation where you would have expected an enthusiastic display of delight)? Or vice versa – an emotional display when you felt modesty would be more appropriate? What values of theirs and yours are revealed in this situation?


A goal in individualistic cultures is to raise children who are confident, self-assured, and empowered, so parents and coaches bathe children in self-esteem-building experiences. They cheer successes, even minor and imperfect ones, and look for opportunities to spotlight triumphant moments. In this context, it is acceptable for a parent to accept praise for a child without appearing arrogant, as the assumption is that it is good for the whole society for children to grow up feeling competent and skilled.

A goal in collectivist cultures is to raise children who are strong, loyal contributors to a harmonious, well-functioning group, so parents and coaches help children learn to fight against a tendency to grab attention for themselves. They praise modesty, they value the sharing of credit, and they quietly build robust, other-oriented community members. In this context, it is preferable for parents to react to a compliment by demurring, as the assumption is that it is good for the whole society if children grow up feeling quietly and inwardly respectful and strong.

In this one clear moment on the soccer field, Kay vividly captures this difference in parenting goals. Through a clear understanding of the competing goals, she herself has found a way to adapt to the challenge of living between cultures - she says one thing in response to compliments from American parents, quite another in response to Japanese ones. She notes that her son, too, appears to have internalized her Japanese values, when he shares the soccer trophy with the goalie.

After eight years of helping her children negotiate two cultures, she happily sees signs that her son's Japanese identity is strong, even when his peers are confused by his behavior. In terms of Berry's Acculturation Model, her son has taken a step from Assimilation toward Integration.

Also see supplementary descriptions of:
Harmony and Face
Individualism and Collectivism
Value Changes

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School Lunch by Minako Maemura

The school lunch in Japan has very important educational roles besides being a time for consuming food.  Students are expected to learn many values through their school lunch.

Students prepare lunch by themselves, starting in first grade.  The students in charge wear white aprons, white caps and masks. They carry very heavy containers from the school kitchen to the classroom. Then they serve food to their classmates. Before eating, the students say in unison, “itadakimasu.” At the end of the meal, they say, “gochiso samadeshita.” These are words of appreciation for those who prepared the food. In all these ways, students are supposed to learn cooperation, responsibility and independence from adults.

School lunches in Japan are nutritionally well balanced. Milk, bread or rice, stew with meat and vegetable, and fruits.  This is the typical menu. There are more than one hundred kinds of food for school lunch in a year. Menus are not repeated within the same month.  They generally taste good. Most students look forward to lunch time. Mothers really trust it, too. Even if children don't eat much breakfast or dinner, as long as they eat the school lunch, we feel they get enough nutrition. 

Students have lunch in their own home rooms with their home room teachers. All students in a school (and in some cases, all students in a town) eat the same lunch. There is no choice.  Students, especially those in higher grades, are expected to finish the lunch unless they are allergic to something. Teachers supervise students not to leave their lunch uneaten. 

I was so surprised that students at my child’s school in the US stay at the cafeteria unsupervised by their home room teachers. It also surprised me that they throw away food, even food that is wrapped and could easily be saved.  Japanese have the value that food is very precious so we must not waste it. Parents and teachers have taught children that value repeatedly.

Japanese mothers basically support the school lunch program, including the rule that children must finish their food. However it makes some students feel uncomfortable.  I remember that one boy who hated tomatoes and couldn't eat them got punished by his teacher.  He made him put the tomato on his desk and gaze at it the rest of the day.

We are concerned that the rule of completing the school lunch is so strict that it could be a burden for some children. However, we Japanese mothers accept its educational meaning.  Generally, the evaluation of Japanese school lunch is very high.

Questions for Reflection

  • When you were a school child, where did you eat lunch? Is the system the same for today’s children?
  • How does it compare to what Minako describes in Japan and the US? What cultural values do children in your home country learn from their school lunch period?
  • In your culture, do most people think children should have choices about what they eat, whom they play with, or what activity to engage in? How do you think this compares to other cultures?
  • What are the advantages of the school lunch system in Japan, as Minako describes it? What are the advantages of the school lunch system in the US? Disadvantages of each? What do these systems teach us about each respective culture? What would each culture have to give up if it tried to be more like the other country? What might each gain?
  • Choice is very important to many Americans, who generally don’t like being told what to do or what to eat by the government. Can you think of other examples of Americans resisting government control, or valuing choice?


Minako was struck by the difference in how the school lunch period is handled in her home country vs. the US. For her, Japanese school lunch time is an opportunity for learning – about nutrition, cooperation, hard work, thrift, gratitude – and a relief for mothers who can trust that their children will be well fed. The US lunchroom seems to her to be simply “time off” for the children and the teachers, a kind of free-for-all, nutritionally and behaviorally, with little supervision about what the children eat or do with their uneaten food. Lunch time is a refreshing break during a day of learning, and a time to build social networks. The cultural values underlying these two scenarios are profound.

Collectivist values are clearly reflected in this description of the school lunch period. All the children eat the same portion of the same meal, and the meals are prepared by other children. Teamwork and cooperation are taught in the process of preparing the food. There is also a clear sense of work ethic instilled, as well as an organized process which is respected and followed by all children (the same way, in every school).

Individualists, in general, resist others telling them what to do, including what to eat. They tend to demand a lot of choice and the right to avoid foods they don’t like. Lunch time for them is another moment to express one’s individuality. Giving children a variety of food to choose from exercises their ability to think and decide for themselves at an early age. Although there are national guidelines about nutrition for federally-funded school lunches, there is relatively little attention paid to the quality and quantity of food consumed by individual children. Recent efforts to address the problem are motivated in part by the growing problem of obesity in the US.

Another point that Minako noted was the children’s wastefulness throwing away a half-eaten sandwich or untouched apple. Japan and the US have different histories with regard to plentitude and availability of resources. This essay gives a wonderful example of how these values get transmitted from generation to generation. In Japan, a homeroom teacher supervises children finishing their lunch and not wasting anything; in the US, the lunch room monitor lets the food be tossed and the teachers, in the teacher’s room on break, don’t see it.

Also see supplementary descriptions of:


Formality and Informality by Sam-Sung Ko, Korea

After I came here, I was embarrassed due to several cultural differences. One of them was the difference in formal meetings. In September, my family and I participated in the welcome party of the school of public health that my husband attends. It was held in the evening. We arrived at the party place on time in order not to miss the introduction of the Dean and other professors of the university.

On arrival, we could see that other students and professors were eating a meal. Maybe the formal event would be after the meal, I thought. It would be good to have a formal event after the meal. I didn't want to wait for the Dean's address while hungry. However, my expectation was not met. After small talk with one another, people left freely. There was no formal event like a Dean's address or professors' introductions.
We had a similar experience at the PTO's meeting of my children's public school. The meeting was only to talk over coffee. The Principal met parents individually with self-introductions. It was not the picture that I imagined.

In Korea, a formal meeting is done like this: On time or a little later, the master of ceremony makes an introductory speech with others seated solemnly. Then follows the introduction of professors and administrative staff. It is only after that that participants have a meal.

I can see the good and bad points about this cultural difference. The good points are freedom and versatility. The bad points are lack of solemnity and an inability to get information easily. I felt that active participation was needed to meet other people and get information.

It is impossible to argue the superiority or inferiority of some cultures, I think. They have been formed and modified according to the situations, climates and traditions. They have their own value. However, experiencing other cultures can be a good chance to see good and bad points of our own culture. We can also get the good points of other cultures. I think that we have to try to understand the differences of other cultures and adjust ourselves to them.


Sam-Sung points out some key cultural differences between her home culture and US culture. Her observation of the low-power distance situation she encountered in the US paints a clear picture of how confusing intercultural transition can be, especially when many of the basic "rules" of behavior are different than what we expect.  Her higher power distance background led her to expect a formal speech, impersonal introductions, and a tone of solemnity, marks of a status differential between the new staff members and the Dean and faculty. For her, this underscoring of a status difference is comfortable and, indeed, efficient.

Instead, she encountered an entirely different approach in the US, where informality and low-power distance behavior are the norm. The U.S. dean and professors offered a low power distance "gift" of personal access, and an opportunity to get to be known as an individual. The expectation of "schmoozing" with people on all levels of the social or professional hierarchy, or approaching authority figures directly, and often by their first names, can feel uncomfortable to those who have been taught to maintain a degree of formality and to show respect through deference.  The task can feel even more daunting in a new language, with new rules.  It is no wonder that Sam-Sung was a taken aback by these cultural differences.

Sam-Sung also points out some of the advantages and disadvantages of both sets of cultural values. Her ability to analyze and acknowledge the validity of both approaches is a clear sign that she is well into the acculturation process. 

Questions for Reflection:

  1. In your home culture, would a reception for new students or employees be handled more like what was described in this essay, or more like what Sam-Sung expected? Would people be expected to actively seek information through asking questions and talking to others, or would there be a formal orientation with the same information being given to everyone?  What do the different approaches for having a reception reveal about each culture's cultural values?
  2. Sam-Sung  points out how informal the event felt compared to her home culture, How do you think the US compares to other cultures on power distance and informality dimensions?
  3. What are some ways people show respect (or fail to) in the US? What about in other cultures?
  4. Would you feel comfortable chatting with the president of a company (or dean of a university, or the principal of a child's school) on your first day there? Why or why not?
  5. Do you agree with Sam-Sung's classification of "freedom and versatility" as good and "lack of solemnity and inability to get information easily" as bad? Why or why not? Would others from your home country probably agree with her or not? What does this tell you about your own cultural values?

Also see supplementary descriptions of:
Power Distance
Formality and Informality



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