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Essay

Breaking bread

By Samantha Loong

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"Are you making sandwiches?" I was at a bakery in Osaka and a staff member had just finished slicing a loaf of dense multigrain bread for me. "Toast," I replied. "This bread is precious, so I like the slices to be as thin as possible." She flashed a big smile: "I know what you mean. It's delicious, isn't it?"

The weather was miserable, but I couldn't help but beam. Japanese customer service is renowned for its attentiveness and politeness, but not for its small talk. And how I missed that.

The other memorable small-talk experience I've had in Japan was, funnily enough, at another bakery in Osaka. I had ordered a raspberry hot chocolate and, as I waited for my drink, the young woman behind the counter said: "It's 33 degrees today. I'm guessing you're more of a hot drink person?" I laughed and admitted it was probably a strange choice for summer. Then both of us bonded over the shop's hot chocolates and how we felt about iced drinks. In both instances, these exchanges were brief, but they left me feeling extra taken care of.

But why is that? Small talk often gets a bad rap. The name itself makes it sound unimportant. A lot of people dislike making or dealing with small talk when shopping, as it can seem awkward, insincere or a waste of time. But in the right circumstances — you're not holding up the line and everyone is happy to talk — you can really make a connection with someone.

Think of small talk as the intersecting part of a Venn diagram. You could stay in your roles as Customer and Salesperson, or Stranger No. 1 and Stranger No. 2. But small talk helps you feel less like robots programmed to say fixed sentences, and more like humans who have something in common.

The fact that both my small-talk experiences happened in bakeries brings to mind the expression "to break bread with someone." It has biblical origins, but essentially it means to share a meal or an experience with someone that creates a meaningful connection. Small talk in Japan is rare between staff and customers, especially when dealing with large corporations, so I'm glad I could make a meaningful connection in those bakeries. It made my purchases so much more than mere transactions. In fact, it added value to them.

Hopefully my positive small-talk experiences in Japan won't be limited to just bakeries. Our world seems to be turning into a place where our differences are being used to divide us. Perhaps it's time more of us tried breaking bread to see what can bring us together. And just like a bakery, the experience could end up being a warming one.

共有すること

日本では客と店員が世間話をすることはやや珍しい。規模が大きい店では特にそうだ。筆者は世間話をすると、特に大事に扱ってもらった気がして、買い物がより有意義なものになると感じている。

The Japan Times ST: November 24, 2017

The Japan Times ST 読者アンケート

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2017年12月22日号    試読・購読   デジタル版
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