For example, in Japan I often encounter this paradox when it comes to addressing friends. In Japan, it's generally rude to call someone by their first name unless you're really close friends. You'd generally refer to them by their last name followed by -san. Most of the young people that I meet in Japan have a good knowledge of American culture, and understand that for us calling someone Mr. (last name) means that you're not friends at all, and are interacting on a very formal level. So many people whom I've met have said "we're friends, please call me (Tetsuya, Katsuhiro, Yoshida, etc.)", even though we haven't known each other nearly long enough to be on a first name basis (by Japanese standards).

On a similar note, I often want to talk Japanese to my Japanese friends (because I know that they speak Japanese and I want to practice/impress them), but they often want to speak English to me (because they want to practice/impress me). Is there a word or a term for this phenomenon?

edit: To clarify, I'm specifically looking for a term that summarizes the communication breakdown caused by two cultures trying to, out of politeness or respect, accomodate each other's cultures?

  • 2
    So, this is more than a "culture gap," right? Specifically, you are looking for a culture gap that arises from politeness. I think Oct 1 '12 at 17:03
  • Are you looking for 'culture clash'?
    – Mitch
    Oct 1 '12 at 17:26
  • @AffableGeek Not really. It's more like when two people try to mutually bridge the culture gap, and in the end both just keep ending up on opposite ends of the gap. It's more of a deadlock caused by bridging the gap. See coleopterist's answer,he has the right idea. Oct 1 '12 at 17:26
  • @Mitch culture clash seems close, but according to this wiki answers page, culture clash just means the misunderstandings and disagreements caused by the need to learn a new culture's behaviors. Oct 1 '12 at 17:30
  • 1
    You might want to ask this question on Japanese Language & Usage. I believe it is a situation that is found more in Japanese than in other languages. FWIW, famed Japanese language expert and writer Jack Seward had a name for this exact circumstance: he called it "the fool valve," a condition of Japanese people in which they so disbelieve that actual Japanese could come out of a gaijin's mouth that they will only respond in English. This condition may be less true today than it was in his era, but I have noticed it myself.
    – Robusto
    Oct 1 '12 at 17:45

Alphonse-Gaston Syndrome

You could dub such a breakdown as symptomatic of the Alphonse-Gaston syndrome:

a pair of persons exhibiting an excessive usu. exaggerated politeness or deference to each other esp. about not taking precedence


after Alphonse and Gaston, characters displaying excessive politeness and often uttering the phrases “after you, my dear Gaston” and “after you, my dear Alphonse” that appeared in the comic strip Alphonse and Gaston by Frederick B. Opper †1937 Amer. illustrator and cartoonist

Wikipedia expounds thusly:

The strip faded from public view shortly after Opper's death in 1937, but the catchphrase "After you, my dear Alphonse" lived on. It continues to the present day, spoken in situations when a person receives a dare to do something difficult or dangerous or both; the catchphrase returns the dare to the person who made it. Sometimes it is said when two people are simultaneously trying to go through the same doorway and awkwardly stop to let the other go through.

Alphonse and Gaston exchanges have also been employed by sportscasters during baseball broadcasts when two outfielders go after the ball and it falls in for a base hit. Shirley Jackson used the phrase as the title of her short story, "After You, My Dear Alphonse," published in the January 16, 1943 issue of The New Yorker.

The phrase "Alphonse-and-Gaston routine", or "Alphonse-Gaston Syndrome", indicates a situation wherein one party refuses to act until another party acts first. From a September 23, 2009, New York Times editorial: "For years, China and the United States have engaged in a dangerous Alphonse-and-Gaston routine, using each other’s inaction to shirk their responsibility."

I also ran into a loosely related term named xenocentrism:

oriented toward or preferring a culture other than one's own


This is really just a case of adapting behaviors in order to follow local customs and "fit in".

So "fitting in" might be an apt term.

There is also an idiom "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" that suits your examples and so "doing as the Romans do" might be used as a verb phrase.

You may also hear people responding to question about why they are doing something they don't normally do when visiting a foreign place with, "You know, 'When in Rome...' "

  • I use this idiom all the time when I'm with fellow tourists complaining about not being able to walk while eating lol. That isn't what I'm looking for though, because I'm "in Rome", but the "Romans" are doing as I do. Oct 1 '12 at 16:22
  • And likewise, my first instinct is to do as the "Romans" do, since I'm in "Rome". So what I'm really looking for is a name for this kind of communication breakdown/deadlock. Oct 1 '12 at 16:25

The term is culture clash.

a conflict arising from the interaction of people with different cultural values

See also

When one or more cultures are integrated into one environment, causing disruption and challenging contemporary traditions. Often occurs in multicultural societies.


Being ‘too accommodating’.

Accommodating the other so much that the opposite of what you want to happen (eg, social connection, ease) happens (eg, dis-ease, frustration...)

‘Bending over backwards’ ‘to accommodate someone’.

So you arrive - back at the start of the circle.


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