Why I Like Michael J. Fox Even More
by Masaki Watanabe
Burnaby Actor’s Unique Take on Interpersonal Communication
I’ve always liked actor Michael J. Fox, from long before I moved here from Singapore back in 1997, because of his personality that I perceived in his TV sitcom (Family Ties 1982-89) and movies (e.g. Back to the Future trilogy 1985-90) characters. There was this savvy but personable air about him that I found particularly engaging. It was only after we moved here that I learned not just that he’s Canadian but that he attended high school right here at Burnaby Central. As I made new friends over the past 14 years, I’ve come to realize that Fox’s personality embodied the Canadian spirit of fairness and tolerance toward different cultures.
Down to earth and easy-mannered, people in Canada generally are probably among the easiest to approach of all the countries I’ve known, if not the easiest. Over the years I’ve perceived that quality in actors Donald Sutherland, Dan Aykroyd, Donald Sutherland, as well as in musicians Diana Krall and Oscar Peterson and others.
Michael (if I may so call him) was just another movie star I liked until his battle with Parkinson’s disease began in the nineties when he was around 30. He had the strength to overcome a drinking problem, then went on to go public about his condition in 1998. I could only admire the way he overcame a severe physical handicap that would seriously demoralize any man at the peak of his career to become a strong advocate of research into the disease. People like him make me appreciate how lucky I am to be more or less of sound health.
He became one of the public figures I admired, but it was only recently I found out from a magazine interview that he shared with me a major problem that I hereby confess I’ve had as far back as I can remember. I’d never heard or read anyone put it quite that way before in English or Japanese. It’s about inter-personal communication.
There is a long-running,series of interviews with celebrities in a set Q&A format called “Proust Questionnaire” on the very last page of the monthly Vanity Fair that I particularly enjoy, as it reveals the way the minds of successful people work. In the interview in the December 2011 edition, VF noted that the actor’s Michael J. Fox Foundation had raised over $264 million for Parkinson’s research, and then asked, among other things:
Q: “What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
A: “I’m a serial interrupter.”
Q: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
A: “Serial interruption.”
It made me sit up in my seat. As readers who know me personally can attest, I tend to talk a lot, maybe partly because of my background as a journalist and language teacher. And I’ve been known to cut in, and how. To be quite honest, as far back as primary school, when I only spoke Japanese, my parents were already telling me: “you talk too much, and don’t listen enough.”
But this was the first time I’d heard my problem summed up succinctly as a “serial interrupter” by a celebrity whom I happened to admire. Moreover, he went on to laugh at himself for deploring the very same fault in others.
I can well imagine Michael at Burnaby Central, being just like his sit-com characters: smart-talking, savvy but affable. But if my own experiences are anything to go by, chances are he was constantly being told off at home: “Michael, when someone is speaking, you must let him or her finish.” In Asia, based on my experiences in Japan, Singapore and elsewhere, people seem somewhat more tolerant of garrulous old men if only because of traditional values, but having lived here for 14 years, I’ve come to appreciate that “letting someone finish” is one of the basic tenets of good manners.
The way I communicated as a child, and perhaps still tend to despite efforts to control myself, was that as soon as I had something to say in response to what someone was saying, I would blurt out the words whether the other person had finished or not. Proper conversation must be analogous to throwing a ball back and forth. The other person throws the ball, you catch it and throw it back, in steady tempo. You don’t suddenly snatch a ball in mid air and snap it back fast, or throw another ball while the other person is about to throw his, or even throw two balls at the same time.
I do have a couple of friends who don’t seem to mind my “erratic” way of communicating, who seem to know when to tell me to shut up. To all others I might have offended, or may still offend occasionally, my excuse is still “I didn’t mean to interrupt,” as feeble as it sounds. (Michael might understand.)
What’s the relevance of all this to the Japanese Canadian experience? Just think about the vital importance of verbal communication—not just between, say, Japanese-speaking emigrants who came after WWII and the Nikkei folks in their 5th or 6th generation and beyond, but also among generations of ijusha themselves (do I/we speak English or Japanese?), or among Japanese Canadians (perhaps a subtle “I-know-more-Japanese-than-you-do” one-upmanship now and then?) and even between Japanese Canadians and Canadians in general. Maybe it no longer happens much in long multi-ethnic Vancouver, but I’ve heard conversations like: “You speak English very well.” “Yeah, like I’m Canadian.”
Focusing on this business of interruption, I realized from the time I was a talkative kid in Tokyo that in Japanese—an “agglutinative” language*—you can keep adding phrases on and on, and then deny it all with one negative. So if a speaker is not sure how much he or she is going to say when starting to speak, especially when making an abstract statement or a qualitative judgement, the other person might falsely assume half way through he or she has already finished, and cut in.
In English-speaking and other Western cultures, preciseness and clarity especially in technical contexts are greatly valued. You have to know what you’re going to say, where you’re going to put that final verbal “period,” before you open your mouth, but once you do, then the other person as a rule has to let you get to that finishing point.
In Japan, bad speakers, if they are corporate leaders or top politicians, are too often allowed to dribble on and on, to the derision of the bemused media. In the west, corporate and political leaders know they always have to watch their statements in public because of myriad legal issues and socio-cultural sensitivities involved.
If I were to arbitrarily interpret Michel’s response, in conclusion, it sounds like: “I know I’m full of words and sometimes even mixed up, and I also know I get riled by people like myself…” But the clearest message between the lines must be “Hey, I’m still trying,” and that’s from someone who’s already “made it.” I read he moved back to Vancouver from L.A. some time ago. Wherever you are Michael, I take off my hat to you.
*adding information such as negation, passive voice, past tense, honorific degree and causality in the verb form. Common examples would be hatarakaseraretara (???????), which combines causative, passive, and conditional conjugations to arrive at the meaning “if (subject) had been made to work…” and tabetakunakatta (????????), which combines desire, negation, and past tense conjugations to mean “(subject) did not want to eat.”