There is a famous saying that goes, “Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself; it means thinking of yourself less.” I had an interesting illustration of this after my first week of work in a Japanese office.
It was Friday, we’d had a busy afternoon, but now it was over and we were just waiting for the boss to leave. Because nobody leaves before the boss leaves. An hour and a half later, I was tired and hungry. We’d been at work late the night before, too, and we weren’t getting paid overtime for either day. My mind wandered to scenarios in which the boss might actually realize, at this time of night, that he desperately needed my assistance, along with that of all my other coworkers. I didn’t come up with much.
Finally, with apologies, the boss left. I quickly took care of a couple last things, and then grabbed my coat without daring to ask if anyone needed anything else. At this point, I really didn’t want to know.
That was when a coworker turned to me and said, with that typical Japanese childlike sincerity, “So, you survived your first week of work!”
I was surprised at his kind words, and replied, “Yes, thanks to your help!”
Even our manager, a busy man who was always dashing out of the office and had a perpetual pile of notes about missed calls on his desk, put his hand over the receiver to wish me a good weekend.
I couldn’t help but think, Wow, this whole time I was thinking about myself . . . and my coworkers were thinking about me.
So there it is: humility. Thinking of yourself less (and thinking of others more). Something I need to work on.
Now I could argue that an office full of people twiddling away their time waiting for the boss to leave is an affront to human dignity. It places a fanciful notion of solidarity above the concrete, here-and-now good of actual human beings who need to eat and vacuum their carpets and spend time with their kids. It would seem to be an example of “thinking less of yourself,” even if it is culturally enforced.
So it’s an interesting dynamic in Japan.