In Japan I heard a phrase that we don’t use in the US. 頑張って (ganbatte) means “Do your best.” It’s a simple phrase of well-wishing, but implies more than just “Good luck.” It suggests that when you do do your best, things will go well for you. It points to our agency in any situation and gives us power to sway the outcome.
People in Japan use this all the time. “You have a test tomorrow? Do your best!” “You have a job interview? Do your best!” “You’re going to ask that girl out? Give it your all!” And it’s not just an empty phrase- they actually do it! So many times I have looked at the Japanese and been in awe of the sincerity and effort that goes into every aspect of their lives. Students spend endless hours studying. Mothers arrange artistic lunchboxes for their children every day. Before entering a public bath, people scrub their bodies red in the effort to preserve cleanliness. Teachers will not go home until they’ve finished all of their work for the day, often staying 12 hours at school. They are salaried, mind you! Numerous times I’ve asked a storeperson for directions to another shop, and they have walked me directly to it. I haven’t figured out if they do this rather than risk letting a foreigner lose her way, or if they are trying to avoid an attempt at English.
If you were to use the same response in the US, though, I fear you might offend someone. In English, the phrase sounds cheesy at best and then quickly falls into the realm of patronizing. To tell someone to do their best is to suggest that they may not have already planned to do so. And maybe they didn’t (intend to do their best), so now you are exposing their lack of preparation. The only way to salvage their feelings at this point is to suggest that it will be much easier than they anticipate and not to worry. Most people avoid this road altogether. Americans would much rather build solidarity over their skills in accomplishing things with minimal effort. How many times have I heard college students compare procrastination stories? The less time paid to the project, the better the boast. We take time trying to make careless work look presentable rather than trying to care in the first place. We pretend to fret over the direction of our lives after binge-watching shows, but are really just bragging about how little we’ve accomplished. It’s scary. Not that people do this, but that people support and encourage this behavior in their friends. We want the bar set low for ourselves, so we lower it for others. In doing so, it’s creating a culture of decreasing standards.
That’s why when I heard “Do your best,” it shot in like a bullet train delivering a memory. The memory is that I can do my best, I ought to, and that my life will be better for it. Let’s all do our best and see what happens!