This has happened over and over to me and whatever group of women, foreigners, and/ or both that I am a part of it. It is a common experience at mixers or gatherings in Japan.
It’s the awkward introduction.
Here is the most recent example:
I am in a group with a Brazilian woman and a German one. There are three of us chatting in English, the only common language between us. We are in a room where foreigners and Japanese have gathered to learn how to dance the Obon Festival dances.
As we are talking a Japanese man who looks to be in his late forties increasingly looks over. Finally, he marches over with his paper cup of water in hand and interrupts our conversation with a loud, “WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
We pause and all turn to face him. He puffs up, as if enhanced by our attention on him. The Brazilian answers first, she always loves introducing herself and getting to know people. Before she can finish, he waves at the German and saids, “AND YOU?”
He has a script it seems, and we need to follow it so he can control the conversation precisely. His English is not the best and this is how he stays on top of things. The German is fluent in Japanese and answers in his native language, but this annoys him because he wants to practice his English on us.
Next is my turn. I answer “the USA”.
“Oh!” He becomes excited. “What state?”
“Oh! I like Houston. NASA. Do you ride a horse?”
Before I can say something, he’s back on the Brazilian. With an enthusiastic thumbs-up, he says, “Great coffee!”
She smiles politely and nods in agreement. Just as she is about to say something, he turns to the German and asks, “Great cars. Do you like sushi?”
What proceeds are variations of the same question until he’s asked about about our favorite colors, shapes, sports, and the infamous “Do you like Japan?” and “Do you like Japanese men?”
Finally, even the Brazilian looks worn and tired of this inane conversation. The German pretends she just received an important text and excuses herself. I go off to “get something” from my bag. The group disintegrates until the man leaves and reforms once he’s left.
He glances at us from afar with a puzzled look of “Why was I kicked out?”
This is a common situation in these types of events. It’s most likely to occur the more attractive the members of the group. It always ends the same with the intruder being pushed out subtly. They never seem to understand why.
I’ve asked a few Japanese men over the years about why they introduce themselves with “Where are you from?” like that and was told, “It’s because we’re trained in middle school to do that.”
I don’t know if that’s true. Nevertheless, I wonder how does one enter a group?
Thinking about it, my approach tends to be to stand on the periphery of the group I wished to enter and pretend to look at my phone. When I hear a topic I have an interest in, I make a comment like “Oh, you’re into photography? What type? “. If the group likes it, the circle opens to make space. Ninety percent of the time I’m let in. Not once have I ever tried to force my way in with “Where are you from?”.
Sometimes I don’t even have to say anything. They notice me standing nearby and we make quick eye contact and the group opens a space. I listen for a bit and when I have something to add, I chime in. There is a flow to group merger. I certainly don’t take over the conversation and start directing the topic with boring questions.
Always these guys who fail to enter walk away in confusion after they are expelled. They don’t get what went wrong and why the group turned so cold to them.
There are cases where some have succeeded. My husband, for example, was quite skilled at how he slid into my circle of female friends. I spotted him from the outside of a coffee shop and ran over to say “hi”. (I guess he wasn’t quite merging with our group, but the technique would have worked regardless).
My friends followed after at me. Seeing that we were all together, he asked, “May I buy you all coffee? My treat.”
His smile was killer. My friends tried to decline, but he reassured them that it would be his pleasure to do so. From the exchanged looks, my friends instantly approved of him and silently asked me, “And who is this Charmer?”
Once we were all seated with our drinks, he didn’t take over the conversation and ask us “Do you like…” or “Where are you from?”. Nevertheless, he did become the center of attention as my friends peppered him with “What do you do?” and “How do you know each other?”
I didn’t appreciate how skilled he was in joining the group, but now I can see his tactics so much better. Very few seem to understand how to do this. Too many often rudely insert themselves, take over the conversation, bore everyone to death, and then act like everyone else is being unfair for wanting to escape them.
Small talk may not be the most exciting, but it is an important skill for getting your foot in the door. Without it, you’ll find yourself thrown out and a door slammed in your face.
What are your thoughts on this? Has this happened to you in other countries?
How do you join groups at mixers and such?
And, most important of all, WHERE ARE YOU FROM?