Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Keeping Others’ Glasses Full


In Japan, many of the expectations of étiquette come from the concept of compassion (思いやり, or omoiyari), in a form of anticipating the needs of others. When I get asked about differences between the US and Japan, I often use stories like this one to illustrate a point:

Japanese guidebooks sometimes note that visitors should be aware of the Japanese practice of pouring each others’ drinks. It is polite to pour the other person’s drink, and also allow the other person to pour your drink. At the table, we look out for others to make sure their glasses are full, before we pour our own drinks.

The first reaction I usually get from men (so far their ethnicity hasn’t really had much of an impact) is how inefficient that system is (vs. my female friends who respond merely by a sound: “awwwww”). Perhaps because many of my male friends are in science, I often get some feedback about “why make it into an n-squared problem?” …But of course, the point of etiquette is not optimized for efficiency. Perhaps it is the inefficiency of it all that makes the statement “this is how much we care about you”.

It turns out anticipating the needs of others is a great skill to have in negotiations and other aspects of business as well as maintaining a healthy relationship. It’s the old adage of strive to understand rather than to be understood. Through years of practicing this and other versions of the Japanese etiquette where the others’ needs must be first considered or at least acknowledged, it is easier for me to troubleshoot a corporate level communication problem, finding a solution to a contract dispute, or framing a request that is more likely to be approved than rejected. I only realized recently that some of the nicest people I know didn’t have the skills to easily step into another person’s shoes in order for them to anticipate the others’ needs (aside from whether they were going to be able to set aside their own needs to be heard or have their way).

One part of it is the “being on the look out”, which you can’t do if you are absorbed in your own needs. The other part, perhaps equally important, is allowing someone else to pour your drink, even if you could have poured it yourself. You allow someone else to return you the favor. Japan’s society is formed by a culture built on leaning sideways to locate where you are, rather than stacking up vertically. The sideways bond is strengthened by looking out for each other, and doing things for each other, even if you are in a perfectly fine position to do something yourself. You might be surprised that there are benefits in allowing others to help you.

Sometimes I hear concerns about this gesture extending to something that minimizes the importance of one’s own needs. After all, the emergency procedures do state that we need to put our own oxygen masks first before assisting another passenger on an airplane. When the intension of the gesture is clear (e.g., I must remain alert if I were to be able to skillfully help the other passenger, vs. my life is more important), I haven’t seen it to be a problem.

Whether you feel like pouring someone else’s drink first or not, having that imagery in your mind when you are in a meeting full of people all trying to push their own agenda, it might help to break a pattern that has ceased to be helpful for everyone involved.

Photo: Restaurant Dahlia, Seattle, Washington 


2 comments on “On Keeping Others’ Glasses Full

  1. Preparation is everything, though. Japanese practice this from the early years of their lives. One can prepare oneself, especially mentally, before entering that meeting room. Thanks for this illumination on seemingly banal table manner of Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lavayoda
      March 31, 2015

      Exactly. What’s banal for us is novel for others. As for preparing oneself mentally…I have another blog coming up on that topic. Stay tuned!

      Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on March 30, 2015 by in Buddhism, Culture, Japan, Management and tagged , , , , .
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