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 in a traditionally male-dominated culture – are finding more opportunities in the workplace.
Organizers of the event, which now draws over 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.
The rise of outsourcing and professional call centers, now almost a 700 billion-yen ($6.85 billion) industry in Japan, has created a new industry based on professional phone answering, they say.
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.
Some experts explicitly tell women to speak in a higher voice than usual to sound feminine and energetic. “Think of the musical scale – do, re, mi, fa – and imagine speaking in fa,” said Akiko Mizuki, a business manner expert on AllAbout.com.
“It’s very difficult to be polite but effortlessly so. If you sound like a robot, you can’t put the caller at ease,” said Keiko Nagashima, manager at a call center for SBI Securities in Tokyo, which has been sending workers to compete in the competition for the last five years.
Nagashima’s protégé, Mika Otani, trained six months for the competition by writing out sample answers and practicing in front of a mirror to make sure she was properly opening up her larynx and articulating. But Otani, 26, does not plan to simply follow tradition. She considers herself a modern woman and shuns the high-pitched voice. As more women have taken on professional positions in recent years, she said, there has been a backlash against overly squeaky voices.
“I work at a financial institution, so I don’t want to sound like a cartoon character,” Otani said before the competition.
At the competition, Otani is among the first competitors to run through a three-minute conversation. She nervously takes her place at a desk on center stage where the backdrop is painted to resemble a Japanese office. With one hand, she clutches the receiver, while she uses the other to keep time and maintain her rhythm.
Judges scrutinize the conversations for impeccable Japanese phone etiquette: good tone, volume, speed, pronunciation, articulation and use of words. A strong contestant takes appropriate pauses between phrases and stays friendly, but not overly friendly. Throughout, proper exclamations to signal attention and empathy must be used.
Otani’s conversation goes off without a hitch. Still, she later laments: “I wish I could do that over again! I wasn’t entirely focused, and I think it showed.” She comes in among the top 20.
The other contestants are no match for Kiyomi Kusunoki, a call center operator for NTT, Japan’s giant telecommunications company. Her tone, polite greetings and pauses all fall perfectly into space. Later, at the lavish awards ceremony, complete with searchlights and a samurai show, she is declared Japan’s best phone answerer.
It was in many ways a choice from another era because she followed all the conventions and rules, several contestants said.
But, at least, Kusunoki did not speak in a squeaky voice.