“Your superiors are beyond praise”

No one ever had to tell me it would be inappropriate to praise my instructors. I knew instinctively—or maybe I’d been raised to understand—such praise would be presumptuous. As if I were in a position to evaluate the expert, and pat him or her on the head! I would no more have done that, than I would have presumed, as a beginner, to criticize the instructor’s lesson plan. Praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin. If you wouldn’t use one side, don’t use the other.

Yet I saw many classmates having to be taught that bit of etiquette, and I see it to this day. In America, this particular take on good manners is a minority position—indigenous, but rare; whereas in Japan and perhaps much of Asia, it is the default position, understood by everyone.

Consider a parallel discussion on workplace etiquette. American “how to” guides on workplace success often suggest praising one’s superiors as a way to give them recognition and at the same time become better liked. Contrast that with this succinct paragraph from the book Japan: Doing Business in a Unique Culture, by Kevin B. Bucknall:

Your superiors are beyond praise

Do not praise your superior for something he did […], it will not please him. In your culture it might be considered polite to do this; in Japan, it implies that you have raised yourself on a pedestal above him or her and are actually daring to offer a view about his or her behaviour. This actually seems quite a shocking thing to do in Japan.

As I said, a similar perspective does occur in the West, and I want to draw it out a little bit. I think everyone gets it in cases like this, which are extreme for comical effect:

“That’s a very good poem, Mr. Frost. You should try to get published!”

“That’s a really neat equation, Mr. Einstein. Is science a special interest of yours?”

“Ms. King, you look like you’re pretty good at tennis. We should play sometime!”

The speaker in all three cases will be embarrassed when they realize what they’ve done. They’ve condescended, or set themselves up as equals, when addressing someone they should have recognized as a superior. And we westerners do understand it; that’s why the jokes are funny. It shouldn’t be so hard to transfer that understanding to the dojo.

Still, it requires education and reinforcement, because it goes against our western natures in more than one way. We are egalitarian, and so resist putting anyone on a pedestal for any reason (an instinct that is at war with our simultaneous genuine desire to show respect for individuals and their expertise). Furthermore, westerners are an enthusiastic bunch who seemingly can’t resist blurting out praise whenever they feel it. And they see it as a nice thing to do.

Even so, the lessons about respecting one’s superiors, and about speaking to people respectfully, are absolutely worth learning. We shouldn’t drop those lessons just because our culture sometimes appears to lean the other way.

Now, does this point of etiquette mean we must never evaluate teachers and classes? Not at all. Human minds are in a constant process of evaluating things, praising and critiquing as they go. One can hardly put a stop to it, and it’s part of learning.

Etiquette is about time, place and manner. In this case, it means keeping your comments to yourself long enough to learn what you need to know (unlike the people in the jokes). It might mean asking questions instead of commenting, to avoid being presumptuous. But most of all it means taking your comments outside the dojo, where you can hash through all your thoughts, theories and evaluations with fellow enthusiasts on your own time, without speaking foolishly to your teachers. That give and take with your peers is, in fact, a time-honored part of training—and much of the fun of it as you come up through the ranks.

That brings me to one final point—about blogging. As an instructor who cringes when students praise (or criticize) inappropriately, I wondered for a brief moment whether I should feel similarly about comments from beginners on my blog. Others have wondered whether it’s appropriate for students to blog about their training at all, since it will inevitably involve the kind of praise and critique of one’s superiors that we’ve been discussing.

I think it’s obvious the world wide web is not the dojo, and we are willingly engaging in open discourse. One must absolutely use good manners, and choose respectful words—but isn’t that always true? To try to apply dojo rules to the blogosphere would be to misunderstand the nature of the pursuit. Martial arts bloggers are like students getting together after class to argue their passion over beer, or meeting behind the gym on their days off to practice and try things out. These activities are important in the development of any martial artist. We all did it; we still do it; and a good instructor knows to let it be.

That, at least, is my thinking. But let me know yours.

6 Responses to ““Your superiors are beyond praise””

  1. Charles James Says:

    Civility or to be more precise…”rudeness”. The art of civility is often overlook here in the America’s and even more so since the evolution of technology, i.e. text messaging and the internet anonymity.

    Excellent point in your post. I have embarrassed myself through my recent study of “Choosing Civility” and believe it or not this particular point was not raised in the sections on work.


  2. Would it be condescending of me to praise this post?

    All I can say is I wish I’d had a chance to read it before recently posting on the topic of praise.

    I think it’s true that inside the dojo, congratulating one’s instructors or seniors can at times be highly inappropriate. If you show appropriate etiquette and respect where it’s due, your feelings will probably be pretty clear to the people that matter.

    That said, part of me wishes my seniors knew just how much they’ve inspired me. Maybe that’s where blogging is an opportunity to share our enthusiasm and admiration with others. Though, I suppose after a few beers in the blogsphere we still have to be careful of what we say.

  3. Charles James Says:

    In addition if I may…our seniors are not beyond praise but the praise given must be in an acceptable format.

    Example: When you see a senior do something that really impresses you in lieu of the normal praise that would be rude you could simply say to them, “Thanks for that lesson Sempai/Sensei, etc!” and then provide a respectful “rei.”

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Charles- Thanks for coming by, and thanks for coming back. What you added is very apt. I think when an American says “Great class, Sensei!” or “Excellent demonstration!” what they often really mean to say is “Thank you for that.”

      Krista- Glad you are posting again, and what a good topic 😉

  4. Nicely said – I especially like the idea of the blogosphere as a conversational community rather than strict instructors and students.

    It would be very tough for me not to give out praise for really well done posts!

  5. […] social gathering. Expressing enthusiasm for how he taught class (a subject we’ve dealt with here). Sending email to explain one’s absence from class (this form of communication deemed too casual […]

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