In Canada, it’s quite normal for people to nod or say hello to complete strangers on the street. In general, Canadians are a friendly and polite bunch of people. And it’s genuine friendliness.
In Japan, it’s normal for people to stare straight ahead and ignore everyone around them. Whenever there is eye contact, there is a friendliness and politeness. People will help others out, especially if they’re foreigners or elderly. But in general, it’s not genuine friendliness. It’s a way to maintain the harmony of Japanese society.
When foreigners meet each other on the street and they don’t know each other, that’s when things become awkward. A more normal behaviour is usually just brief eye contact and a nod. That’s nothing unusual. However, what happened to me last night was very awkward.
Because of the tendency to avoid eye contact in public, many long time residents of Japan from other countries start conforming to public behaviour norms. But looking at people is a normal thing in Canada, so I often take a quick glance. Well, as I got off the bus, a white woman walked down the sidewalk in the opposite direction as me, so we were bound to face each other. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, and she did the exact same thing with me. We both realised what we were doing, and maintained an awkward silence as we passed each other. Both of us noticed that there was another white person and tried to discreetly see if we recognised each other. The result was a very strange and kind of creepy eye contact, our faces forward, our eyes looking sideways, locked on to each other.
After that, I realised how ridiculous we must have looked, and my initial feeling was that I wanted to tell her how silly we were. However, I didn’t know if she was an English speaker. She could’ve been Russian or Polish or Romanian, and may not have been able to speak English. So, I just carried on going home.
In the country you live in, how do strangers behave toward each other in public? Let me know in the comments below.