Friday, April 30, 2010

Unbecoming Speech

Back in the the '70s, I managed several restaurants, including a steak house, an Italian restaurant, a couple of fast food outlets,a delicatessen, and even an ice cream shop. I mention that previous career only so that you will understand that I actually know something about hiring and training waiters and waitresses. These days, my contact with service personnel in the “hospitality industry” (i.e., the bar, restaurant, and hotel business) is only as a customer, but I haven’t forgotten my past.

A while ago, I was watching a television program about the training of personnel in new restaurants. The program showed a couple of expert consultants and how they helped the managers of the soon-to-be-opened shops. One of the things that caught my attention was the training in language: the store managers and their service staff were being taught what expressions should--and shouldn’t--be used. I was very pleased to hear that one of the most common expressions I hear in restaurants, and one that has always bothered me, is in fact wrong.  The expression is: "(something) ni narimasu", as in, for example, when a waiter or waitress brings your order to the table and tells you, “Ebi (shrimp) tempura ni narimasu”.

That has always bothered me. It seemed to me that the expression was used in a misguided attempt to sound more formal/polite, even though "de gozaimasu" (a formal form of "is") would do the job quite well. I suspected that the phrase has become so common that service personnel, and their bosses, had begun imitating the mistake.

My Japanese, although it certainly isn’t native speaker level, is quite adequate for most situations, so I thought that I at least understood what “narimasu” means: "becomes" or "will become". My unspoken reaction to that very common " narimasu" expression has always been “OK, but what is it now?” or “How long do I have to wait before it becomes what I ordered?".  

I haven’t (yet) been so unkind--though I’ve definitely been tempted--as to ask the waiter or waitress directly.  Certainly so far whatever has been brought to me looked as if it was already tempura, or a steak, or a pint of Guinness, or whatever else I ordered. In some cases, it’s really intriguing to consider what it might be if it’s still becoming what I ordered. If something, for example, is becoming a raw oyster, then what is it now?

So, I was happy to see this consultant on the TV program sternly correcting the store managers and service personnel, using almost exactly the words that I’ve always thought: “It’s not becoming a sirloin steak; it’s already a sirloin steak!”

[This appeared in a somewhat different form a few years ago on a different website. Unfortunately, the phrase still seems to be as popular as ever.]

No comments: