Switchboard operators compete in Japan
December 15, 2013 1:34 AM

SENDAI, Japan — The contestants roll their shoulders and lick their lips. The audience holds its breath. At the center of attention on stage at an expansive convention hall: a single telephone.

It rings. The annual All-Japan Phone-Answering Competition for office workers has begun.

“How may I help you today?” a young contestant in a checked vest and skirt uniform says in Japanese after she picks up the phone, her hand visibly shaking. She chirps through the salutations in the high-pitched voice preferred by Japanese bosses for decades. She nods and bows, smiles and then grimaces in what appears to be nervousness and sheer effort. “I’m always at your service,” she says.

For over a half-century, office workers from companies across Japan have gathered each year to battle it out for the title of Japan’s best phone answerer.

The competition, which is dominated by women, is an impressive showcase of feminine politeness and eloquence, but it is also a reminder of the clerical positions Japanese women — often referred to as “office ladies,” or “OLs” — still serve in Japanese offices.

This year, a record 12,613 office workers from across Japan sought to compete in the national contest. Sixty finalists made it, all but four of them women.

Now in its 52nd year, the contest has surged in popularity in recent years. That is a puzzling development in a digital age dominated by emails and instant messaging and one in which Japanese women — ever so slowly — are finding more opportunities in the workplace. Organizers of the event, which now draws twice the number of contestants as it did a decade ago, attribute that popularity to the enduring importance of politeness here, as well as a growing concern among some employers that younger Japanese are forgetting their basic manners.

A polite office worker picks up calls during the first or second rings; if, for unavoidable reasons, the caller is left waiting for three rings or more, an apology is in order. The conversation itself is carried out in a formal, honorific spoken form of language — peppered with exclamations like “I’m horrified to ask this request, but ...” At the end of the call, the receptionist must listen for the caller to hang up before putting down the receiver. Hanging up first is a serious faux pas.

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